CRITICAL EYE The Gentleman Producer

Dallasites always know when “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”: The Dallas Summer Musicals go up. And with DSM tickets in your pocket, you’ll never walk alone.

E!ut then there always comes an evening in the 3,420-seat Music Hall at Fair Park that you just shouldn’t have been there. Last year, you may remember, it was a paramedical team that got you to the emergency room gasping for oxygen after the utter stupidity, agonizing sexism and historic rip-off of Ziegfeld: A Night at the Follies.

But even when the show’s a total bust- and that’s rare-the Dallas Summer Musicals are undeniably, as producer and managing director Tom Hughes puts it, “a part of Dallas’ heritage.” Not for nothing has this annual series of self-produced and nationally touring shows thrived for 51 years, pulling in more than 200,000 people per summer with as many as 14,000 patrons paying between $28 and $288 for those season subscriptions. You can see a show for the single-ticket price of just $5-true, the seat may be somewhere about a fifth of a mile down Fair Park’s grand strand, but even a seat in a parking lot is cheap at $5.

One of the best suits of the Summer Musicals, however, is far too modest, much too wise and simply too true to his industry nickname to stay in the limelight for long. Tom Hughes is the Gentleman Producer on the roadshow map.

Somewhere below your subscription seats-a little like the Phantom’s sub-opera caverns-is Hughes’ office. The room is filled with photographs of sets from The King and I, The Merry King and I, The Merry Widow, My Fair Lady and The Vagabond King Two carved lions flank an intricately carved wooden 19th-century throne given to Hughes by a grateful John Davidson, who hadn’t thought he could play Arthur, only Lancelot, in Camelot, until Hughes gave him the chance.

Near that throne, waiting for Hughes’ next curtain speech before a performance, is a bristling, gleaming bank of walking canes. One is from Pearl Bailey. Many are gifts from Ginger Rogers. Sandy Duncan’s father carved a beautiful, delicate hand-topped cane. Liberace gave him several that are surprisingly demure. A dying Yul Brynner asked his wife to be sure that a regal gold-handled cane be given to Hughes. And one extra-tall black cane, white-topped, is carefully lettered down the side “. . .for Tom Hughes. . .Tommy Tune’s cane from My One and Only.. .623 performances at the St. James Theatre on Broadway.”



What Hughes hath wrought is a perfect example of a phenomenon that has put nonprofit presenters and commercial producers into the coziest of beds together. According to the League of American Theatres and Producers, in the 1990-1991 season touring Broadway roadshows did $449 million.

That’s good news and bad news.

Good: The healthier the circuit, the better shows you can expect to see rolling up to the Music Hail loading dock. These days, the shows are bigger, better staffed and sometimes absolute dead ringers for their Broadway originals-this is the case with virtually all of producer Cameron Mackintosh’s shows such as Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. Mackintosh has shamed other producers into pumping real bucks into their tours by proving, once and for all, that a roadshow can have perfectly balanced sound, sets as intricate and large as Broadway’s and top caliber actors.

Bad: The more opulent these tours become, the harder it is for local producer-presenters like Hughes to produce their own. Once an avid producer of virtually all his own shows, Hughes last summer produced none of them. All were imported. It’s no wonder that his eyes light up at the prospect of producing his own Sandy Duncan I Do! I Do! this summer, though that show will cost as much as $525,000 to stage.

Never will you meet a more complete lover of theater than Hughes. Always impeccably suited, always smoking like a Bank-head-Hughes is never without the latest gossip from Gotham about who’s being replaced in the opulent Guys and Dolls revival, how long John Guare’s Baboons will run and whether there’s anything to the rumor that Tommy Tune wants to step into Keith Carradine’s spot in the Broadway run of Will Rogers this summer.

One of Hughes’ most gentlemanly traits is an honesty and sense of fair play that can be claimed by all too few producers and presenters. When, for example, the aging Sammy Cahn became too ill to play his April lour dates of Words and Music on the Na-tionsBank Broadway Series at the Majestic-the fall-winter-spring series that Hughes also runs-Hughes brought in a specially prepared evening with Hello, Dolly composer Jerry Herman but offered refunds to any subscribers who wanted them. The economy being what it is and people, alas, not knowing who Herman is-despite his creation not only of Dolly, but also of Mame, La Cage aux Folles and other shows-the evening opened to what looked like a 25-percent house. Though he surely took a bath on it, Hughes kept a stiff upper lip, smiled graciously at the few who were smart enough to come and refused, even in private, to complain about the money he’d had to give back. He was similarly composed in the face of loss last fall when that killer-concert show Buddy failed, for some reason, to attract Buddy Holly’s fellow Texans. There may be no regional producer west of London’s great Mackintosh as purely devoted as Hughes to doing everything right and taking the lumps of the biz with grace.

The Carrollton native started working with what was called the State Fair Musicals in 1955. It had begun as Opera Under the Stars with Sigmund Romberg’s Blossom Time in 1941, co-produced by no less than the Broadway producing Shubert brothers, J.J. and Lee.

Not until 1951 did the series move indoors. It was desperately Under the Stars until then, particularly on the night in 1949 when an insect made its way down Nanette Fabray’s costume in Bloomer Girl. Fabray exited, screaming. The show came down. And 2,800 theatergoers had to be offered seats to another performance.

In 1961, Hughes became managing director and producer. Today, he manages both the Music Hall and Majestic Theatre facilities and presides over a program that has a drop-dead roster of stars to its credit: Jackie Gleason, Carol Burnett, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, George Burns and Sammy Davis Jr., just to name a few.

This summer, former Dukes of Hazard good buddy John Schneider is added to the list in Brigadoon, June 30-July 12. The venerable hoofer, Harold Nicholas, stars with Freda Payne in the Duke Ellington slicker, Sophisticated Ladies, July 28-Aug. 9. Stephanie Mills eases on down the Yellow Brick Road in The Wiz, Aug. 11-23.

Say hello to Hughes when you get to the Music Hall. He’s easy to spot-if it’s a Hughes show, you’re assured there’s a gen-tleman in the house.

PORTER’S PICKS

Definitely consider the Summer Musicals’ The Secret Garden, for Heidi Landes-man’s gorgeous Victorian pop-up sets if nothing else, June 16-28, Call 565-1116 for more information. ●And, speaking of bugs, the outdoor Dallas Shakespeare Festival grinds into gear June 16-28 with The Comedy of Errors. It’s free; gales open at 7 p.m. nightly except Mondays; shows at 8:15, in Samuell-Grand Park, 807-4046. ● What will either be one of the season’s greatest moments or its most gaudy embarrassment will be Theatre Three’s staging of Stephen Sondheim’s most recent musical, the dark and marvelous Assassins. June 6 through July 18. If done right, we’ll have a coup on our hands. Call 871-3300 for tickets. ● Janet Farrow’s ever-interesting, ever-minimalist Classic Theatre Company is doing Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies, June 5-27, 747-6407. ● The Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, which possesses one of the best-disciplined companies of young adults on Dallas stages, calls its June 6 Tex-Mex Gala at the Loews Anatole the Espana Ball, 720-7220. ● And the 1955 baseball musical Damn Yankees opens Casa Manana’s season, June 11-28, in Fort Worth. The production stars Jamie Farr. (817) 332-2272.

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