What Is TACA, Anyway?

It’s the group that commandeers hours of free TV time every year; an organization that has given millions of dollars to the performing arts; one of the biggest little charities in Dallas. But what is TACA, anyway?

Something is going wrong. It’s a half hour into the 1980 TACA TV auction and the phone bank hasn’t lit up past the first row. Last year’s producer at Channel 5 called the auction “the most rapid-paced thing I’ve ever done, including ball games and Charlie Rose,” but this looks more like “Four Country Reporter.” A hundred pink-smocked phone volunteers, runners, table captains, and bid girls, who should be moving goods at the rate of about one item a minute, stand idly around Channel 4’s Studio C. Thirty profitless minutes – make that an oak wall unit, a bundt pan, and a weedeater – have slipped away. Has TACA violated the first rule of the charity telethon, never preempt a football game? Are the phones connected? Finally the error is discovered – the phone number flashed on the screen is off by several digits. A new slide is jerry-rigged, and within seconds, the phones light up, row after row, all the way to number 65.

“TACA Time on Four.”

“Yes, hello, what’s the bid on M6, the rabbit coat?”

“The latest bid is $100.”

“I’ll raise it to $125.”

“Does the Epirotiki-Greece trip include air fare?”


“What size is the ladies’ robe?”

“A medium.”

“Can the floodlight be plugged into a car’s cigarette lighter?”

“Frankly, sir, I don’t know.”

“No more bids from Robert Whittington,” phone coach Susan Collins yells to the tiers of phone volunteers. “He’s only a recorded message.”

“What’s the current bid on the clothing alterations?”

“Sorry, that’s been sold. Item Q5 is now 100 loaves of bread.”

“You all, the raises must be $50 on items of $500 or more,” yells Susan Collins. “I will not publicly embarrass you, but somebody just took $25.”

“I’ll bid $814 on Tl, the Pontchartrain Hotel trip.” Its retail value is $650.

The calls come in waves, as the auctioneer pitches items to the viewers: “M6 is a baseball autographed by Mickey Mantle. . . of course that’s priceless. . . M10 has been accepted by the Smithsonian Institute as an authentic reproduction of a Darwin microscope, retail value $200. . . C2 is cellulite therapy at the French Boutique, including Saran Wrap, cream, and body sauna to help you lose inches. . . .” In 90 minutes, a single phone receives approximately 50 calls, from Lewisville, Balch Springs, Carrollton, and Allen, from Royal Lane, Dallas Parkway, Elmo, and Commerce Street. Most come from legitimate bidders, hoping for bargains on everything from a case of Amalie to a ride in the Goodyear blimp. No doubt this is lousy TV, but to the bidders and TACA volunteers it is altogether serious.

The TACA auction continued in the afternoons and evenings of the next two days, January 26 and 27. Like the members of an amateur theater company whose production has finally hit the stage, the volunteers loosened up with each segment. On the second night, a group of runners started taking their breaks behind the phone bank, where they mixed their complimentary diet Dr Peppers with 151-proof rum; thereafter, the auction’s incessant background din was punctuated with deep soul hiccups. Late Saturday, a prankster made off with the pink bib promoting Diamond Shamrock; the bid girl had to appear on-camera without it, to the detriment of effective advertising. “I mean why?” howled the pink-clad volunteer who discovered the theft. “You can’t wear it. Who would do a thing like that?”

On camera, however, the pressures of live broadcasting and the incessant promotion of TACA, its donors, and beneficiaries sustained the impression of opening night: Urgent civic work was being accomplished in Studio C, KDFW-TV. Walt Garrison and Mayor Folsom urged viewers to bid high and bid fast for a good cause; when a Mr. B. Lindley of Midland upped the Goodyear blimp bid to $3000, auction workers erupted in spontaneous applause, as if the cure for cancer had been discovered. Apparently encouraged by this response, Mr. Lindley later bid $1000 for a ride in a Bell helicopter. Lucky Lindley. At the end of 14 hours of air time, approximately 500 workers had passed through the studio doors, thousands of bids had been taken and hundreds of items sold. At press time, TACA’s record keepers weren’t sure exactly how much the 79 auction had raised, but it was probably the most successful in 13 years, netting in the neighborhood of $150-175,000. And, possibly, the broadest-based arts fund drive in the city’s history.

Most of us first encounter TACA through the TV auction, although that is not its only fund-raising event, nor even the most profitable. Last year, the TACA Custom Auction, a high-roller event at the Fairmont Hotel that is heavily underwritten by corporations, netted nearly $300,000 from the sale of diamond and gold necklaces and Hereford bulls and hunting trips to Alaska. Some lucky executive even walked off with an “actuarial valuation” for the company’s pension plan. TACAssociates, a group of 750 subscribers who paid $25 each or $40 a couple in return for free tickets to the beneficiaries’ performances, brought in $17,000; the French Picnic, where Dallas’ social elite, costumed as maids and butlers, serves dinner to a small group of donors, another $5000. All three events were by invitation only. The TV auction, at $125,000, accounted for only about a quarter of the season’s take and, based as it was on the indiscriminate reach of television, was not even particularly suggestive of TACA’s style.

With Richard C. Marcus, Annette Strauss, and Mrs. Algur Meadows on its executive committee, TACA is indisputably an arm of civic-minded high society, and a fixture in the society pages of the News and the Times Herald. But TACA takes itself more seriously than that, as do the performing arts groups that receive its money. Founded in 1966 for the sole benefit of the Dallas Theater Center, TACA’s members once would have had no difficulty explaining that their acronym stood for the Theater Center Auction; today, with eight beneficiaries, they are more likely to claim that the initials stand for nothing at all or invent a bogus but appropriate new name, like Annette Strauss’ The Auction for the Combined Arts. In fact, TACA is the closest thing in Dallas to a United Way for the arts, an umbrella fund-raising organization that offers the city an opportunity to transcend its loyalties to specific artistic institutions and do something for “culture.” In recent years, the group has been spectacularly successful, generating a net of $470,000 in 1979 for a cumulative total of nearly $3 million in 15 years. When TACA’s disbursements were made last December, they exceeded the city’s cash grants to major cultural institutions in all but one case, the symphony, and usually by a good margin.

Last year, TACA’s beneficiaries included the Theater Center, Civic Opera, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Ballet, Summer Musicals, Theatre Three, and the USA Film Festival. Most of them are in permanent financial trouble, with earned income lagging well behind the cost of doing business. Even with improved ticket sales, for example, the symphony expects 50 percent of its 1980 budget to be met by contributions, like TACA’s $131,000. (The symphony used the gift to attract $160,000 in matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, which will go a long way toward underwriting the free concerts that make up 40 percent of its performances.) The opera, with high expenses for sets, costumes, and storage, must meet 60 percent of its current budget through contributions; TACA’s $131,000 is approximately the cost of its five highly touted student performances. Even Theatre Three, the only beneficiary with real earning muscle, expects ticket sales to fall 15 percent short of expenses; TACA’s gift of $9400 will pay three quarters of the cost of printing programs for its eight productions – not as basic as salaries and electricity, perhaps, but things the theater can scarcely do without.

When all the performing arts groups must make up losses, all contributions are important, but TACA’s are more important than many. For the Theater Center and opera, TACA’s 1979 gifts represented eight and seven percent of total revenues respectively, and a more impressive 26 and 10.7 percent of contributed revenues. No one needs to be told why sums like that matter. In the ballet’s and film festival’s budgets, the TACA percentage was lower, but still represented the largest and second-largest contributions – and relief from the a-little-here, a-little-there pressures on organizations permanently in the business of asking for money.

Better yet, perhaps, TACA’s gifts aren’t necessarily earmarked for specific projects. “We’d like to think we support programs that wouldn’t exist otherwise,” says president Annette Strauss, “but we also want the money to go wherever an organization can use it.” In many cases, that means general operating funds – a policy that organizations strapped for cash, as the ballet was in 79, find particularly obliging. “I can’t say it enabled us to buy X or Y,” says Henry Holth, general manager of the Dallas Ballet. “It supports the entire program. I’m very glad they don’t restrict their gift. They allocate it, say, ’Here’s your check,’ and that’s it.”

Unlike most umbrella fund-raising organizations, TACA places no restrictions on independent campaigns by the groups that receive its gifts. “The nice thing about TACA is that they do broad-based fund-raising for the arts which has virtually no impact on my work here at the symphony,” says Al Milano. “They turn themselves into this glorious department store on TV and it doesn’t affect me – corporations are open to both appeals.”

TACA has been spectacularly successful of late, increasing its take six-fold between 1975 and 1979; the gifts received by every beneficiary have increased steadily in that period. Although the 1980 totals are far from decided, it looks like more will be available to everyone. “It’s a very effective device for raising money for the arts,” says Bryce Jordan, a member of the DSO’s executive committee. “It has visibility, clout, and by now, tradition.” And constancy – once it takes on a beneficiary, TACA never cuts off funding.

In 1966, TACA was the pet project of Mrs. Leonard Haber (then Mrs. Clint Mur-chison) and Mrs. Joseph Lambert, both of whom sat on the board of the Theater Center and were looking for a new fundraising vehicle to benefit it. They found the answer in Combo, a San Diego-based arts drive that had raised money successfully with auctions. TACA’s first auction was a modest affair by today’s standards; it consisted, essentially, of four booths selling exotic food, one at each corner of the brand-new NorthPark center, and a write-in auction in front of Jas. K. Wilson. TACA repeated this format at the Sheraton Hotel in ’67, with a $5000 increase in the take. “We could see growth in it at the end of the second year,” says Virginia Nick, a founder, “and decided it could be a good thing for all the arts. But to grow, you have to broaden your base.” In ’68, TACA took the opera on as a beneficiary, set itself up as a non-profit corporation (which made its gifts tax-deductible) and approached Channel 39 about doing the auction on TV. “The only thing was, none of us had ever seen a TV auction,” says Mrs. Nick. “We had no trouble getting the items in, but we really had to improvise to get them out. We only had two blackboards, so we had to keep sending out for more; the phone company ran a special trunk line out to the station, and we had to call Austin to find out how to hook it up. We were challenged by our friends to perform on TV – they’d call in and pledge $500 if we’d play a piano solo or do the Charleston, because they knew we were sweating it out. But we made good money.”

With the addition of the opera in ’68 and the symphony in ’69, TACA came under pressure to increase its take, but when it came time to divide the proceeds, the group remembered its origins. “We were organized for the Theater Center,” says Katherine Bull, another founder. “It was in our charter that as we took in other organizations, we would not penalize the Theater Center. They were guaranteed the first $60,000.” Things seem to have gone equably until 1971, when the opera and symphony must have started to wonder whether they were getting as much as they gave. That year – with TACA’s total funds starting what would prove to be a sharp downward turn – the Theater Center walked away with $60,000, versus the opera’s $52,000 and the symphony’s $47,000. Protected by charter, the DTC retained first call on TACA’s loyalty for the next several years, until the disastrous division of 1975: Theater Center, $60,000; symphony and opera, $6500 each. (The ballet and summer musicals, further diluting the percentages, got $5000 and $2000.) That was TACA’s crisis year. “The Theater Center was trying to protect its position,” says chairman of the board Richard Marcus, “and the other arts organizations had to fight over what was left. That left them thinking they were always second fiddle. We just weren’t pulling together, and the disadvantages were beginning to show.

“I thought it was crucial to get Annette Strauss in as a mainstay, and she agreed, which is probably the single greatest thing to happen to TACA. She instigated the real push to re-think the manner in which the money was distributed to the beneficiaries. We put everyone on a fairer footing.”

The new footing was in fact a drastic restatement of priorities, which put the big three beneficiaries at 28 percent each, where they have remained. This might have been a debacle for the Theater Center, which lost nearly half its edge, save that Annette Strauss also brought with her the philosophy of dunning corporations for all they were worth. She organized several forms of business underwriting – at the TV auction, for example, $1000 buys a sign, a bib with the company’s name to be worn on-camera by a bid girl, and a 30-second commercial – and changed TACA’s cultivation of business from sporadic to systematic. “She brought in ways of making money that none of us could have,” says Virginia Nick. “She gets in the big money.” Indeed: In Strauss’ first year as president, TACA’s overall take more than doubled, as it very nearly did the next. With the season of 76, TACA assumed the essential form it has today: Equal, heavy funding of the Theater Center, symphony, and opera, with newer beneficiaries sharing an amount less than that received by each of the big three; heavy enrollment of corporations as underwriters and donors. And it was the beginning of TACA as a cause to be reckoned with.

TACA’s current list of corporate donors runs to several hundred, with Fritz Pet and Garden Products at the low end, Lone Star Gas and American Airlines at the high. “I tell them, ’give to TACA and you’re helping to support eight organizations at one time,’ “says Annette Strauss. “Then, if they have one or two they’re especially interested in, fine – they can give to them too. But with TACA, they know they’re giving to all the arts, and they feel like they’ve done their share.” With 84 percent of last year’s take going to three institutions, the United-Way-for-the-arts pitch isn’t especially accurate, but it is persuasive. And, with 400 TACA “Go-Getters” out hustling items for the TV auction alone, it must be nearly as hard to say no to.

In a letter soliciting items for its auctions, TACA wrote, “The ’Something’ TACA gives in return is lots of exposure and publicity, TV advertising seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers in North Texas, advance auction promotion for unusual items, publicity in local newspapers, feature, society and entertainment columns – photographs – interviews on local radio and TV talk shows. . . .” It delivers. In its 13 years, the TV auction has been carried by every local station except Channel 8, which has a policy against doing telethons. This year, KDFW suspended normal programming for 14 hours and forsook the associated ad revenue, enabling TACA to sell ad time at its own profit to corporate underwriters. Local stations are fairly tough about who to give and deny a favor of these dimensions to; surprisingly, where many health and welfare organizations can’t get a foot in, TACA has consistently found an open door.

Television is only the most visible part of TACA’s somewhat cozy relationship with the local press (including this magazine, which has donated advertising space as an item for the TACA custom auction). This year, TACA lined up free advertising supplements in the News and Herald, listing items for bid and their donors, as well as copious society-page coverage of the whole affair. If one wonders about corporate motives, then, the explanation should include a stiff dose of publicity and public identification as a donor to the performing arts, which TACA has transformed into a cause approximately as worthy as crippled children and birth defects. That can make for a lot of corporate donors. Forty thousand in underwriting was in hand before the TV auction hit the air this year; companies also donated most of the thousand items up for bid, food and drink for volunteer workers, and squads of employees to man the phone bank. If TACA isn’t quite the broad-based community fund drive it claims to be, it is a broad-based corporate fund drive.

TACA has demonstrated that it has a fund-raising philosophy, but does it have artistic standards? Does it take on worthy groups or only those most likely to benefit TACA? Does its policy of permanent funding indicate rewards for consistent high performance or annointment as a pet cause, the mark that a group has “arrived”? How has it affected the quality and composition of the performing arts in Dallas?

With the exception of Theatre Three and perhaps the USA Film Festival, TACA has chosen older, established – some might say calcified – institutions with a record of performing safe, “reputable” material, at the expense of smaller, younger, or riskier arts groups that might enrich, and possibly strengthen, the overall cultural mix. Last year’s recipients of the city/NEA matching grants for small professional arts organizations (including such respectable types as the Chamber Music Society and Classical Guitar Society, as well as Manhattan Clearing House and the Dallas Black Dance Theater), overlap with TACA’s not at all.

Perhaps a more pointed comparison is with the 500, Inc., a younger umbrella arts fund drive that earns a good deal less money than TACA yet actively solicits the opinions of members and sponsors on how to distribute it. The 500 funded every TACA beneficiary out of its $260,000 last year, then added eight more organizations, including the Metropolitan Ballet, Dallas Repertory Theater, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts; more significantly, it set aside special grants of $2500 each for the Black Dance Theater, the New Arts Theater, and Theater Onstage in the interest of getting to know more about them. “By making these groups beneficiaries,” says the 500’s Colleen Perry, “we create a relationship. Not a lot of our members know much about them. This way, they’ll give us a program or a presentation, and the membership will get a look at them. If we like what we see, we’ll fund them again; if we don’t, we won’t.”

In contrast, TACA looks for “groups that have a constituency,” according to Richard Marcus. “Do they have the audience and the board to help ensure growth for themselves and for TACA?” With more arts groups around than any single source can fund – some of them formed one week, folded the next – recognition of existing support is necessary. And difficult, since “constituency” can be defined so many ways. Figures are hard to come by, but one wonders what TACA makes of the available evidence. When the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts polled visitors to its “Pompeii A.D. 79” exhibit last year, for example, about half were familiar with the Theater Center and one fifth had attended a performance in the past two years; a third were familiar with the ballet and one tenth had attended. Granted, one third of the respondents were from out of town, but that still leaves room for a lot of local no-shows. Is TACA perceiving a strong constituency or a strong board?

TACA’s steady infusion of cash into mainline arts organizations is hard to criticize; as one local art critic put it, “It’s like knocking the Shrine Circus. How can you be against any organization that raises money for the arts?” Evaluation rests on more than one question, however. One wants to ask whether organizations like TACA are effective, whether they’re as good as they could be, and whether the organizations they fund are as good as they could be.

On the question of quality, TACA’s executive board is surprisingly noncommittal. “Quality is very subjective,” says Marcus, “and anyway, I think the public eventually makes that decision. It hasn’t been TACA’s role to try and be a critic in that sense – it isn’t trying to put itself up as a judge. Besides, if you look at the strength of the board and of public support, I think you’ve answered the quality question.”

The Dallas Theater Center has a strong board, which includes Richard Marcus and Waldo Stewart, and it has support among some sectors of the public, but many think the quality question is still wide open. These include local and regional drama critics, who consistently rank the Theater Center’s productions lower than Theatre Three’s (a TACA pauper at $9400, one fourteenth the Theater Center’s funding), and find their attention drawn increasingly to struggling groups like the New Arts Theater, which TACA doesn’t fund at all. Critics also include Dallas’ most successful playwright, D.L. Coburn, who recently refused to give rights to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Gin Game to the Theater Center. “I’d love to see The Gin Game performed here,” Coburn told the Times Heralds Sean Mitchell. But, “the possibility of a weak production is too high. . . it really might come down to a matter of focus – whether they want to deal primarily with their needs as a graduate school or their needs as a professional repertory group. Right now there seems to be no clear emphasis.”

Coburn is hardly the first to question the basic philosophy of the Theater Center, but it may be some time before the debate reaches the TACA executive committee. “I don’t know if it’s an issue to be debated,” says Marcus. “Certainly it’s a question for the theater company and the board of directors to embrace, but others who express concern need to ask themselves if they understand what the Theater Center is trying to do.

“If the performing arts groups could cover their expenses through earned income, there’d be no need for TACA,” Marcus says. “But there will forever be a gap. You can’t raise ticket prices without excluding people who’d like to be a part. Every one of our groups has had crises, and several have been on the verge of closing their doors. Building a large base of community support – well, it levels out the valleys.” That is probably TACA’s main contribution to the local arts scene – helping close the biggest gaps, by expanding the base, if not of patrons, then of corporate donors.

The role of Dallas businesses in sponsoring the arts hasn’t been a large one, compared to cities like Boston and Minneapolis, and TACA’s leverage in tapping this new source of funds is impressive and all to the good. The question remains, however: Who will benefit? A truly broad-based arts community, with lines to the neighborhoods and minorities and experimental groups, or culture with a capital C? In thecoming years, will TACA lead us anywherewe haven’t already been?

Solution to Last Month’s Puzzle

1. Coleridge – … he on honeydew hathfed, / And drunk the milk of Paradise,[dairies]

2. Bible – The voice of thy brother’sblood crieth unto me from the ground.[steak]

3. Rabelais – Nothing is so dear… astime. [payments]

4. Cato – I would much rather have menask why I have no statue, than why 1have one. [ear]

5. Julius Caesar – It is not these well-fedlong-haired men that 1 fear but the paleand the hungry-looking. [mosquitoes]

6. Plutarch – When the candles are outall women are fair. [game]

7. Horace – It is your concern when yourneighbor’s wall is on fire. [island]

8. Walter Lippmann – A free press is nota privilege but an organic necessity in agreat society. [laundry]

9. Anonymous – Grieve not for what is past. [due]

Le Corbusier – A house is a machinefor living in. [debt]

Shakespeare – Blessed are the peacemakers on earth. [shoes]

Manilius – As soon as we are born webegin to die. [laughing]

Tennyson – Half a league, half aleague, / Half a league onward, / All inthe valley of death / Rode the six hundred. [dumbbells]


Patricia Smith


Runner-Up: Paul Newton


Drawn from 71 entries.


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