Friday, February 23, 2024 Feb 23, 2024
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Tales from Tom Hughes, the Ziegfeld of Fair Park
By Tim Allis |

AND THEN THERE was the night Carol Burnett was almost done in. Tom Hughes tells it like this: “Carol was performing in Calamity Jane. She made her entrance on a stagecoach, one foot on the step of the coach, one arm on the brace, her other leg swinging free, and the other hand waving her hat. She makes her entrance [dramatic pause] and the brace on the coach gives way. She fell flat on her face. Well, that somehow triggered a whole evening of little things-a mashed finger in a trick table, a canopy that clipped her under the chin, a drop that came in and socked her on the back of the neck. All in one performance. And it never happened again. But, oh, that night!”

Tom Hughes tells lots of stories like this from a lot of different nights. As manager of the Music Hall at Fair Park and producer of the State Fair Musicals and the Dallas Summer Musicals-a position he’s held since 1961-Hughes has witnessed or has been a part of enough near-disasters and funny, star-studded stories to keep an anecdotist busy for days. There’s the one about the actor with the bee stings. And the one about the afternoon Milton Berle lost his voice. And, of course, the famous one about the June bug that flew down Nanette Fabray’s cleavage during a production of Bloomer Girl back in 1947, when the musicals were known as the Starlight Operettas and were performed outdoors in the Fair Park band shell. Hughes wasn’t there the night Fabray was danced off the stage screaming, but he does remember the Starlight series because later, while he was in college at North Texas State, he worked summers selling soft drinks to the parched crowds, eventually graduating to cushion-hawker.

Hughes is still at Fair Park, every weekday and frequently on the weekends, where he might be seen negotiating with the producer of a Broadway touring company, charting season subscription increases or holding auditions. This time of year, his time of year, he can be seen in the lobby of the Music Hall before and after each and every performance, greeting patrons as they arrive and bidding them farewell as they depart. And in between curtain and curtain calls, he just might be found doing his absolute favorite thing in the whole world: standing at the back of the house watching the Dallas Summer Musicals come to life.

After all, summer isn’t summer without the Dallas Summer Musicals, June bugs or no June bugs. Theater critics can spend the better part of a year debating whether or not a Sam Shepard play is as esoteric as it is immediate, but when the mercury rises and the sky stays light until 9 p.m. Annie gets the deciding vote. More than 200,000 each season, it seems. That’s how many people take to the Music Hall each year to share in a tradition that stems back to the first season of 12 shows-the operettas-in 1941. Hughes proudly points out that the DSM is the second oldest performing arts entity in Dallas, behind the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. “We’re part of the summer scene,” he says.

With a mix of touring musicals, home-produced revivals, Las Vegas-style celebrity acts and occasionally a brand new production, Hughes and his staff have found an entertainment formula that keeps the 3,420-seat house packed. Hughes says he has trouble explaining to people why they can’t have a seat on the fifth row center, but there are season subscribers who have been season subscribers for at least the 22 years of Hughes’ reign. Not only is fifth row center usually taken by longtime Music Hall-goers, so are the first 20 rows of the three center sections. Now the DSM has access to the Majestic Theatre downtown, which means that seasons will be expanded and, by all indications, houses will stay filled.

Hughes is in the unique, if not always enviable, position of working for the city- and, in turn, its non-profit theater-in roles that sometimes conflict. He’s a businessman and an artist, a producer of shows in the sense of raising money and negotiating talent, as well as of getting a musical on its feet. “I labeled myself a producer when I was something like 14 years old without even knowing what it was,” says Hughes, “and sometimes I still have difficulty knowing.” On top of his responsibility as the man who makes the musicals, there’s his job as manager of the Music Hall and, of late, the Majestic. As Hughes puts it, “I wear many hats.”

Maybe Hughes takes the hat metaphor from the musical Little Me, which has played DSM twice, both times starring Donald O’Connor as quite a few different people, each one wearing a different hat. Hughes talks about that first production of Little Me in 1964 with great excitement- the way he talks about most things. “Imagine the coup of having Donald O’Connor do his first book musical comedy and to see that timing. There’s an electricity that takes off sometimes. The dancers had never danced better. The costumes and scenery were exactly right. Oh, it was a son of a gun of a show. [Dramatic pause] And Donald just couldn’t have approached it with more dignity and talent… to where the excitement was just… it bubbled. People still talk about it. Sometimes they don’t even remember the title, but they talk about that kind of magic.” Then, just as it seems Hughes’ story has reached its climax, there’s one more dramatic pause and an afterthought: “And if you think an audience is feeling that, how do you think I’m feeling?”

Excited, Tom? “The excitement begins to build,” says Hughes, referring to the beginning of warm weather and the sound of set construction on the Music Hall stage. “But then, I think there’s a certain excitement about the musicals that surrounds all of us involved closely 12 months out of the year.” A year for Hughes begins sometime in August, before the current season has closed and well before the State Fair musical has opened. “You don’t finish a season,” says Hughes, “before you start thinking about the next one.” That means that in August, sometimes earlier, Hughes is looking at possible acts and musicals for the following summer. His considerations: what’s available, which celebrities are available, and what’s hot. Hughes travels to New York at least every spring to hold auditions for the summer shows (the DSM-produced ones, not the touring companies, which are already cast) and to see the new Broadway plays. A popular musical like Cats might be two or three years down the line for DSM, but Hughes has learned to think ahead.

Fall and winter involve firming up the season, negotiating with touring companies, directors, designers, technicians, stars and stars’ agents. Then, in the spring, Hughes and his directors hold auditions in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas, where they see thousands of young people for chorus parts as well as many established actors for leads and supporting roles. Hughes has never used a casting agent; he prefers that he and the directors of the shows have immediate input into the selections. Hughes considers the auditions fascinating, although he admits that they are hard on him and harder on the performers. “Auditioning is probably the most grueling, frightening process there is. And you want to hire them all. Out of every 500 kids I see, if I could, I’d hire 492 of them.”

Casting shapes a show, and sometimes Hughes decides to try unlikely casting in order to give a musical a fresh interpretation. John Davidson, for example, is a rather obvious Lancelot, and he had played the role many times before. But in the 1971 DSM production of Camelot,Hughes gave the role of Arthur to Davidson and the role of Lancelot to a less handsome actor who was nonetheless physically impressive-enough so as to be very attractive to a Guinevere. Likewise, in a production of Oklahoma, Hughes and the director opted for Jud-usually portrayed as coarse and unappealing -to be played by someone who was “darkly attractive.” As Hughes points out, “He had to have something that would make Laurie go to that smokehouse with him.”

The rest of Hughes’ spring is spent scheduling the shows’ dates, coordinating publicity, working on season subscriptions and managing both facilities. It keeps him busy, but never too busy, come June, to sit in on rehearsals, attend to production headaches and generally be available for every little crisis. “A company likes that,” says Hughes. “They like to feel that somebody cares.” And despite the problems, it’s clear that Hughes likes doing it. He also likes pleasing his audience, many of whom he now counts as friends, even when it means having to share some bad news with them. Like the night the air conditioning went out and there was no hope of getting it fixed during the show. “I said, ’Hey, we’re gonna play. If you’ll sit, we’ll play. Take off your coats, loosen your girdles, remember the old days of outdoors when it was 104, 105 degrees… and stay with us. You can get a refund at the end of the show, but we’ll play for you.’ And most of them stayed. Once you level with an audience, they generally stay with you.”

Hughes seems to lead an enchanted life of multicolored curtains and footlights and celebrity after celebrity, most of whom he calls by their first names. Even his office isn’t a real-life office. It’s more of a den- or a boudoir-in the basement of the Music Hall. Although Hughes is fond of comparing it to a funeral parlor, with its heavy drapes, deep-colored cushions and high-backed chairs, its souvenirs, posters, gifts from celebrities and photographs make it much more a lively repository of good memories.

Yet for all those good memories, is there anything else Tom Hughes might have wanted to do in this or any other life? “I’ve never wanted to do anything else. From the time I was a youngster selling Cokes and cushions in the band shell, I wanted to be a part of this profession. No, I can’t envision doing anything else. It’s never a job.”

But it does have its taxing moments, andit does have its sadness. For Hughes, thereis almost nothing worse than the end of ashow or the end of a season. “It is sad.[Pause] Sometimes it’s a relief. [Laughter]You know, after all these years, I should beover the reaction of the closing day of theseason [Pause] and it’s still a downer. I justdon’t want that house curtain to come in forthe last time.”

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