The Musical Man

The Dallas Summer Musicals’ Michael Jenkins builds Ferris wheels in places as far away as Nigeria. Just think what he could do for Dallas theater. PLUS: a new exhibit at the Kimbell showcases the museum’s own holdings.

ALL BUSINESS: When Jenkins took over the Dallas Summer Musicals in 1995, there were only 6,500 subscribers. Now there are more than 30,000. Photo by Elizabeth Lavin

Other than the name, what does Dallas Summer Musicals have to do with Dallas theater? Not enough.

I have a proposal: get Michael Jenkins, president of Dallas Summer Musicals, together with all the heads of theater companies in the area, both those that belong to the Dallas Theatre League and those that don’t. Bring the key board members. Schedule a full day or two. Talk about what’s wrong and what’s right with the way things are going, and see what happens.

Artistic directors might balk. After all, Jenkins’ Leisure and Recreation Concepts (LARC), still headquartered in his native Oak Cliff, designs and builds theme parks—at last count more than a thousand, from New Hampshire to Nigeria. He racks up enough miles to have a legitimate claim as American Airlines’ most frequent flyer, which means he’s planning Ferris wheels, not working through the difficulties of blocking Macbeth or The Crucible. As an investor in 122 Broadway shows—he’s made money or broken even on 89—he can’t imagine what it might mean to have to stage a one- or two-man play because that’s all a company can afford.

Not so fast. Of course he can imagine it. That’s why, of anybody in the city, he’s the one whose mind Dallas theater people need to plumb. Why? Not only because he’s been involved in theater here since he helped build the set for Of Time and the River, his teacher Paul Baker’s inaugural production at the Dallas Theater Center in 1959, but also because he knows the business end of theater as well as anybody in the country.

When he took over at DSM, he helped put together a consortium of 10 cities—Atlanta and Houston among them—to develop Broadway plays and then get them on. Jenkins has helped fund and develop successful musicals like Brooklyn, which comes to the Music Hall this month.

And as for financial challenge?

“It costs us, in rough figures, about $104,000 every night the curtain goes up—every time the orchestra starts, whether anyone’s in those seats or not,” he says over lunch at Al Biernat’s. He has more intensity in person than you’d expect from the slightly cherubic fellow you see in his photographs. His voice has a pure Dallas tone to it—a shade flat, without the vowel-stretching Southern drawl, but with a slowing downbeat anytime he wants to dramatize some fact, like that dollar amount. He wants you to imagine how it feels to hear the orchestra’s first notes and know—right then—how much money is instantly gone. One hundred’n four THOUSAND dollars.

There are 3,420 seats to fill in the Music Hall at Fair Park, which DSM operates. He makes you feel statistics on your pulse, not because he’s a bottom-line man, but because that’s where the drama of challenge and accomplishment breathes for him. When he took over Dallas Summer Musicals in 1995, there were only 6,900 subscribers. Now there are more than 30,000. Since DSM took over the Majestic Theatre, formerly run by the City of Dallas, in 1998, it has climbed from being in use 6 percent of the time to 68 percent. He has a $20 million budget this year, which dwarfs the Dallas Theater Center’s $5 million.

Statistics, though, aren’t the whole story. When he discovered that some people were staying away because they thought Fair Park was dangerous, he put security guards in red jackets on horseback, where they could be seen. One lady who had previously complained wrote to tell him how safe she now felt thanks to all the new security guards.

“Actually,” he says, “there were two less guards than before. It was all perception.”

With the new Winspear Opera House in the works, the perception might be that the Music Hall is “losing” the Dallas Opera, but Jenkins hopes to change that view. “We have many commercial users who want to use the building,” he says. “They can’t get in there now because the opera will take that building for four months, and let’s say in a given month—30 days—they may actually have only three nights of opera. The opera gets the least-expensive rate and consumes the most time, so when they’re gone, the commercial users will take it over, and actually it’ll do better.”

Besides the Music Hall and the Majestic, he’s also got dibs on the Texas Theater on Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff (where the police caught Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963) when the renovation is completed.

“What I’m starting there is a smaller version of our big consortium,” he says. “We’ve already signed up Sherman, Gainesville, Marshall, Amarillo, and Corsicana, and I’m looking for about two more cities. We’re going to start shows at the Texas, perform them Friday evening, Saturday matinee, Saturday evening, and Sunday matinee—four performances a week—and run them there for two weeks, and then send them out. We can use local actors, they can go out on Friday night to Gainesville, Texas, or Marshall, Texas, and be back.”

What the new consortium could mean for Dallas theater is exciting in itself. But what Jenkins really wants is a new story to tell, like the one about Brooklyn, which he helped fund from the moment its eventual Broadway director, Jeff Calhoun, called him about it.

Calhoun had just seen a man named Mark Schoenfeld perform the whole thing near the monkey cages in Central Park (a long, fascinating story). A homeless street musician for 16 years, Schoenfeld wrote the musical with his former friend and collaborator Barri McPherson, who had found him singing on a street corner in New York when she was visiting from Boston a year earlier.

“Jeff had a cell phone beside him. He picked it up and called me in Dallas. He said, ’I’ve just met my destiny.’ And I said, ’Who is she?’ [laughs] And he said, ’This show, we’ve got to do this show.’ I said, ’Calm down. Send me the music, the script, whatever.’ He did. I heard it. He kept saying to me, ’We have to do this show on Broadway.’ And I said to him, ’We have to take the show and hide out somewhere and work on it before it goes to Broadway. It’s not ready to go to Broadway. They’ll kill us.’

“So he found a place in Denver, a place not unlike the Texas Theater, and he was trying to get it financed. At the last minute [the financing] fell through, of course, and it was going to be a disaster. He called me up. He didn’t ask me, but I have so much faith in this guy—I would never do this again, and I don’t know why I did at the time—but I wired him some money to finish the show.”

The production ran for six weeks. The first two weeks the theater was half full. The second two weeks it was full, and by the third two weeks, tickets were being scalped for $150.

“I contacted my partners in New York and said, ’I want you to come out and see this show,’” Jenkins continues. “They said, ’We’re not going to Denver to see some show about a homeless person!’ I said, ’You come see this show, and if you don’t like it, I’ll pay for your ticket.’ Of course they liked it. It went to Broadway and ran for more than 300 shows. Now it’s coming to Dallas this summer.”

What do I like best in that story? “A place not unlike the Texas Theater.” It means he’s mulling a story he wants to tell about something that started right here, the way Inherit the Wind did back in the days of Margo Jones or The Texas Trilogy of Preston Jones did in Paul Baker’s tenure at the Theater Center.

No joke. What if the theater community got Michael Jenkins really looking at what’s already here in Dallas theater and thinking about the opportunities? The theater community, excellent in its parts, needs his insight into collaboration and marketing. More than that, it needs the scale of his ambition, which is old-school Dallas—pure joy in the risk and all horizon.

Save the Dates

Through July 21 & 22
Get out the picnic blanket and the bug spray. In The Tempest, Shakespeare Dallas artistic director Raphael Parry reimagines Shakespeare’s best-known play, usually considered his farewell to the stage. Are you wondering what A Midsummer Night’s Dream would look like as a musical? René Moreno saw the Dallas Theater Center’s version of Dream back in the Paul Baker days when Moreno was still a student at Arts Magnet in the 1970s. He was only too happy to revive it, especially with Dallas favorites like Denise Lee (as Titania) performing. Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre, 1500 Tenison Pkwy. 214-559-2778.

July 27-August 20
WaterTower does musicals right, and this time it takes on Into the Woods, the moving Stephen Sondheim fairy tale about a baker and his wife cursed with childlessness. Addison Theatre Centre, 15600 Addison Rd., Addison. 972-450-6232.

Photo: Jenkins: Elizabeth Lavin



Crazy About the Kimbell
A new exhibition—this time showcasing the museum’s own holdings—will make you
fall in love (again) with the Fort Worth gem.

 “The goal shall be definitive excellence, not size of collection.” That’s the heart of the Kimbell Museum’s inaugural policy statement, set forth by Richard F. Brown, the museum’s first director. You could also say it’s the theme of the Kimbell’s current exhibit, “Masterpiece: A New Look at the Kimbell Collection.”

Rare is the museum that displays all of the works it owns. The Kimbell is no different. But for the next several months, visitors can take in art on the gallery walls that was previously taking up space in the gallery vaults. The exhibit showcases Asian art (through July 16), antiquities and European art (through July 23), and pre-Columbian and African art (through October 22). Although we typically associate the Kimbell with impressive traveling exhibitions, like the recent “Gauguin and Impressionism,” the museum’s permanent collection and architecture are spectacular enough to warrant a visit.

Every recent acquisition is on view, such as Donatello’s The Borromeo Madonna, as well as an extensive selection of the Kimbell’s holdings, including a set of four works by François Boucher. Visitors will also be privy to borrowed gems and the new framing of some Kimbell favorites.

What might have inspired the Kimbell to mount such a show? Perhaps it’s the same reason Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers on such an exceptionally large scale—to make us look and see. “I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.” —JENNY BLOCK

Painting: François Boucher, Mercury Confiding the Infant Bacchus to the Nymphs of Nysa, 1769, oil on canvas. Kimbell Art Museum. Acquired in 1972



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