Les Pass


-- after 15 or so years of planning and scheming and begging money and plotting political machinations, after enduring endless seasons of cramped spaces, crumbling infrastructure and shabby, faded surroundings that screamed Podunk to the rest of the show-business world, after three years with no home at all -- the day had arrived.

The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts was ready at last. (Almost ready, anyway, and what would such an opening be without a few furiously crossed fingers?)

At a cost of $100 million, the theater that will replace the dilapidated Depression-era Music Hall is going to make a bold bid to be the top musical-theater venue outside of Broadway. Just as baseball stadia across the country are no longer being built to share space with football or soccer teams, the Hobby Center's main 2,600-seat theater has been designed specifically to house the Broadway musical.

There's plenty of space above, below and on either side of the stage to handle the multimillion-dollar spectacles that audiences now expect. Cheap-seat patrons who thought they were in another area code when straining to see the stage at Jones Hall will be right on top of the action at the Hobby. And all of it will take place under a planetariumlike domed ceiling featuring 2,000 fiber-optic "stars" replicating the Texas night sky.

That ceiling will make true once again the largely anachronistic name of the main tenant of the building, Theatre Under the Stars. For 35 years, TUTS has been putting on musicals in Houston but, with the exception of one free show a year, has long since abandoned Hermann Park's Miller Outdoor Theatre.

Now TUTS has announced its biggest season ever -- the first in its glorious new home, the palace built largely for its benefit.

Brimming with pride, TUTS staged a press conference to let the world know what shows had made the cut to be put on in this most important of all years. To shout out just what would be presented in that magnificent venue after it opens in May.

To do so, it brought along the star of the opening production; the star who, along with his show, would forever be remembered as having the honor of opening the Hobby Center.

Hey, Houston, TUTS said at that press conference, bursting with peacock pride, meet…Tony Curtis. Who'll be coming to town in a warmed-over rehash of a mediocre 30-year-old musical called Sugar, which is now called Some Like It Hot.

Besides immediately putting to rest any lingering questions of whether Tony Curtis was still…ummm… around, TUTS head Frank Young also announced the rest of the inaugural season: yet another production of My Fair Lady, being presented by TUTS for the fifth time; a theatrical interpretation of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz; the 1948 musical Kiss Me Kate, recently revived on Broadway; and another show yet to be determined.

Oh, and the world premiere of a project TUTS has been developing for years: a musical version of the campy, cult Bette Davis-Joan Crawford horror movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, with music by the man who wrote "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini" and "Johnny Angel."

"The season will include six full-scale musical theatre productions featuring some of the finest creative talents in the field of musical theatre," the TUTS press release boasted.

Well, at least they're full-scale.

Behind the scenes and not for publication, some grumbling was heard among the Hobby Center people about the schedule. The Houston Chronicle's theater critic, Everett Evans, did another in a long series of angry articles blasting TUTS's choices.

It didn't faze Young at all. Not only was Tony Curtis alive, not only was he "singing on pitch," according to officials, but -- in a TUTS-ian moment if ever there was one -- Young beamed a few days later that Curtis "is taking tap lessons!"

Much of Houston's arts community simply shrugged their shoulders about the new TUTS season; "That's Frank" was heard more than once. For others, their thoughts were summed up best by Mary Lou Aleskie, executive director of the critically acclaimed Da Camera society.

"You build an amazing $100 million performing arts facility, and what you get is Tony Curtis taking tap lessons," she said. "You don't know whether to laugh or cry."

Frank Young knows what to do: sell, sell, sell. Whether it's his constant battle with the Chronicle's elitist theater critic, or an ever-growing threat from the deep-pockets media giant Clear Channel Entertainment, Young tirelessly and maniacally revels in the frantic world of keeping happy what he calls the blue-hairs, the loyal thousands of customers who make up his impressively large subscriber base.

For 35 years, Young has been the force behind TUTS, transforming it from a near-spontaneous free show in the park to a multimillion-dollar nonprofit organization with a surprisingly considerable influence in the theater world.

"Frank is probably one of the most powerful and positive forces in musical theater today; he's given great visibility to regional theaters as developers of new works," says Van Kaplan, executive producer of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and a national figure in the theater industry.

It's Frank Young's taste, and show-business instincts, that have largely decided what Houston musical-theater fans have been able to see in any given year. And if that means 76-year-old Tony Curtis donning tap shoes, that's just fine with him.

The Pasadena Scrap Iron & Metal Co. -- and this was back in the day when Pasadena was really Pasadena -- seems an unlikely spawning ground for a career in the theater, but the 61-year-old Young grew up being known as "the junkyard kid" because of his parents' business.

Young's parents, however, were not your standard Pasadena scrap-yard owners -- they often drove to Dallas to catch the touring musicals that bypassed the less sophisticated burg of Houston. (His first show: Mary Martin in Annie Get Your Gun in 1946.)

Young dabbled in the theater in high school, but aimed for a medical career. After getting a psychology degree from UCLA and returning to Houston, he found himself drawn to the stage.

After working for Houston Grand Opera for a few years -- doing a little bit of everything -- he approached management in 1968 about putting on a free musical in Hermann Park.

HGO had no interest, but didn't discourage him. Lots of his opera colleagues were enthusiastic, so in the best "let's put on a show" tradition, Bells Are Ringing became the first TUTS musical.

Two shows a year followed, each getting more and more elaborate and professional; after a lavish 1972 production of South Pacific, the organization also began offering shows -- and charging for them -- in the Music Hall. Stars began to appear, like Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Juliet Prowse in Mame and Robert Goulet in Man of La Mancha.

Soon TUTS became a major player, its 30,000 subscribers the envy of less well-off arts organizations. The group got more and more ambitious, launching tours of productions it had put together, creating new shows that -- at least for a while -- were "Broadway bound," and seeing its budgets go ever higher. Productions cost about $1 million each nowadays.

TUTS also runs the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, providing singing, dancing and acting classes for more than 1,000 students each year.

Overseeing it all has been Young, the effervescent impresario who makes every big decision at the organization. There's a board of directors, but, chairwoman Cheryl Thompson-Draper says, their job is to raise funds, not make artistic decisions. There are longtime and loyal employees who perform the nuts-and-bolts work, but when it comes to what is seen on the stage, it's Frank Young's call.

It's a call that's usually made in a constant state of near-chaos. Shows fall through, stars get other jobs, musicals derived from cult horror movies need extensive reworking and have to be delayed.

"Things are very busy," says John Holly, a former TUTS executive producer who now is the western regional director of Actor's Equity, the union. "That's where Frank can get into a bit of trouble -- he doesn't always plan far enough ahead. There's a lot of frantic, last-minute stuff. He loves it, but it was the beginning of an ulcer for me."

"By definition of the people involved in it, things are always a little frantic," says John Breckenridge, TUTS's chief operating officer. "It always tends to be exciting -- these are artistic persons with artistic personalities."

Including Young, who's never shy about expressing opinions. "I've made some catastrophic mistakes because I'm a micromanager and I know it all and I will argue with people," he says.

There's no way to keep things on an even keel, he says.

"We started planning this [upcoming season] two years ago," Young says, "and I promise you, no matter how passionate I get about a show, something goes haywire, or the star you're doing the piece for gets a sitcom, so suddenly stuff gets put on hold. So you have to keep a lot of balls in the air. We are juggling constantly."

There are several different types of balls to keep in the air. Some shows are prepackaged tours of old shows, where TUTS merely pays a guarantee and a percentage of the box office to the producers. Others are revivals TUTS has put together itself (or in conjunction with other regional theaters), casting, set-designing, directing it and mounting a tour. Finally, there are utterly new pieces commissioned by TUTS (again, typically with other theaters), pieces that dream of being huge on Broadway after touring the provinces.

The number of shows a theater like TUTS has to choose from in any given year is relatively small -- perhaps as few as a dozen, says Trudi Biggs, executive director of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, an umbrella group of profit and nonprofit regionals. "In terms of shows available to you, that are the right size for your theater -- you can't have a two-person show in a place that seats 3,000 -- the list is pretty short."

As Broadway becomes ever more enamored of revivals, the list grows even smaller.

"No one's been able to do Oklahoma! for seven or eight years because Cameron Mackintosh locked up the rights in hopes that his London production of it would come over to Broadway," says Kaplan, the Pittsburgh executive who is also chairman of the NAMT board. Mackintosh, the producer of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, opened his revival of Oklahoma! on Broadway March 21.

"I can't get the rights to Hello, Dolly! or Camelot or [other] stuff because they're doing this for profit for Broadway," Young says.

Authors, or their estates, "know what they might or might not get from spotty regional productions, so they'll take a million or so advance from Broadway instead, and that will have the rights locked up," Breckenridge says.

But that, of course, applies mostly to big-name, mainstream musicals. Other titles -- maybe something like the critically acclaimed but dark Parade, about the 1918 lynching of an Atlanta Jew, or one of Stephen Sondheim's musicals -- are readily available.

Not for TUTS, though.

"They have a very safe repertoire, but then again they have a lot of seats to fill," says Becky Udden, artistic director of Main Street Theater. "I know there are a lot of people in town who'd love to see a more ambitious and edgier repertoire there -- it just seems very, very safe and full of stuff that everyone's had a chance to see their whole lives."

Evans, the Chronicle critic, wrote a story calling this season's choices "disappointing…[I]t's time to ask TUTS: Where's the leap of imagination in programming? The discernment to shape and lead public taste, as well as follow?"

Don't get Young started on the subject of Evans. They've been tangling for years; at one point Young inserted into the programs for TUTS's Jesus Christ Superstar a collection of raves from clergy who'd been invited to previews, contrasted with Evans's withering review ("Jesus Christ Superstar could turn a saint into a non-believer"), and added the direct phone lines for Evans and his editor.

"He and I have this love-hate relationship," Young says. "He really more than life itself wants me to do an all-Sondheim season. And I'll have no subscribers. I don't disagree with the shows he'd like to see, I'd like to see them too. But I have to give the audience what they want, not what he wants."

Young and TUTS do lots of subscriber surveys to determine what audiences want. And they say the box office backs them up. When TUTS put on Frank Loesser's difficult musical The Most Happy Fella in 1994, Evans wrote they had "done full justice to a magnificent show…For anyone who loves great musical theater, it's the must-see event of the season."

It flopped, Young says: "You could shoot deer in the theater." Breckenridge says Fella had only $100,000 in nonsubscription ticket sales, as compared to something like Miss Saigon selling $600,000 for the same length of run.

"You have to do these rarely done pieces, I understand that," Young says. "But he'd like a whole season of those, and the reality is I will always put some old warhorses in there that people want to see time and again."

He gets some support in that position. "What Frank wants to do and his aesthetic -- it's not one I share, but I really admire it," says Rob Bundy, artistic director of Stages Repertory Theatre. "It would be a very weird theater town without Frank Young doing those musicals."

And it's not like TUTS is alone in what it offers. In 1994 Young told the Chronicle: "Don't tell me about these important, artistic shows. To me nothing is more important than Marie Osmond in Sound of Music, because it's making a lot of money."

While other theater owners might not have been as blunt, they agree with the assessment. "There was a two-year period when Marie Osmond's tour of Sound of Music was the hottest thing on the road -- every theater in the country wanted to book it, audiences packed in wherever it played," says John Kenrick, a New York theater writer who produces the Musicals101.com Web site.

Even Main Street's Udden, who hopes to see "more edgy" stuff, cuts Young some slack. "In his heart, I think, he wants to further the American musical," she says. "And who am I to tell someone what to put on in a theater that big? We have a really small theater here, and I worry about filling it."

Young doesn't pretend to love everything he puts on. "We do some less-than-brilliant shows; we're human," he says. TUTS did Man of La Mancha in 1985 with John Cullum; another producer wanted to mount a tour of it, but insisted on Robert Goulet for the lead.

The tour was a financial success, but Young didn't go see it. "Goulet, or his wife, would call every three or four cities and she'd say, 'Bob wants to know, are you not going to come see this?' and I said, 'Have you read your reviews?…You opened in Washington and the headline said, "Robert Goulet Is the Man of Las Vegas." ' And she said, 'Look at the grosses, don't read the headlines.' "

Holly, who used to work with Young, says, "There's no question Frank can get tired of the same old stuff, but the audience recycles every six or seven years, so you've got people who haven't seen these shows… But Frank likes to do Houston premieres and world premieres of shows -- that gives him just as much a buzz as anything else."

It is in that area, creating new shows from scratch, that Young has made -- without overstating it -- an enduring mark on American theater. He was one of the co-founders of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, and he has spearheaded the move for regional theaters to pool resources to finance touring shows and produce new work.

"When Frank started the organization in 1985, there were very few theaters involved in producing new musicals," says Biggs, NAMT's executive director. "Now the majority of them are…He's kind of the father of the whole industry; he's really changed how we do business…"

"Frank is a very hard worker and very visionary," says Michael Jenkins, head of Dallas Summer Musicals. "He's had a tremendous impact."

Young made a huge impact when Disney decided to partner with TUTS on the musical version of Beauty and the Beast in 1993. "That was the biggest coup in our industry ever," says Pittsburgh's Kaplan.

"I think we are better known outside of Houston, at least in the professional world, than we are here," Young says.

Economics have forced regional theaters to work together, he says. "In the old days, when I could afford to do shows by myself, as with most musical theaters, selection of shows was not a problem. But back then our scenery was a few painted drops; it was not the level of production Broadway has forced us to match," he says. "When audiences go see The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, these huge $10 million shows, that's what they want to see from us, so we've had to dramatically upgrade the physical productions. And so that means we've had to partner with other theaters that do what we do."

Young says his passion is in producing completely new musicals. Those shows, though, tend to be as far from the cutting edge as one more booking of South Pacific.

TUTS's biggest newly created hits have been a revised version of Jekyll & Hyde, which was produced in partnership with the Alley Theatre, and Phantom, a musical that probably should be called No, The Other Phantom of the Opera.

Both have made stacks of money. (Phantom has tallied $250 million in productions around the world, bringing more than $2 million to TUTS.) But Phantom never made it to Broadway, and J&H has become shorthand for a flashy, empty show that critics hate but audiences love.

Other original TUTS productions include Annie Warbucks, one of the attempted sequels to the megahit; Chaplin, written by and starring Anthony Newley; Zorro: The Musical; and, well, something called Ninfa!, a show about the Houston restaurateur. TUTS projects that died a-borning included a musical version of the film Peggy Sue Got Married and a piece that was renamed Phantom of the Country Palace after the Grand Ole Opry wouldn't let its name be used.

Readers probably haven't heard of them, even if they've made money. That's the way it goes in the theater, says Kaplan: "Frank is bigger than life, and he thinks big. You aim high, sometimes you get there…You do ten shows, maybe one will go. It's an art form, there are no definite things. If you do a new show, there's no telling if there's an audience for it."

Young admits a few of the shows were never going to make it to Broadway -- "they were entertaining but perhaps not God's gift to the musical theater." But they can tour, making money for TUTS and providing regional theaters with more options.

Young directed some of these shows himself, but even if he's only producing, he's extremely hands-on.

Kevin McCollum produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent and has co-produced several shows with Young. "Frank is very creative, he knows what he wants, he's very direct," he says. "He's a musician, he's truly a theater guy through and through, so he knows when there's something wrong with a characterization, or he'll say [a scene] needs a button there."

Currently Young's attention focuses on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The project's troubled history has some people expecting disaster. "People in the business are a little leery of this one -- it will require very special casting, just as the movie did, to attract audience interest," critic Kenrick says.

Young is -- as he is about most things -- enthusiastic. "It's so unique, and we want something that's totally different from what anyone's seen on Broadway," he says.

The musical is about two aging child stars, one of them confined to a wheelchair because of a car accident caused by the other. A preview CD of the show is uneven, but does showcase some good songs for older actresses. Young says names such as Debbie Reynolds and Shirley MacLaine have been mentioned. Auditions in Los Angeles brought out stars, at least as they're defined by Young.

"Jesus Christ, it was an endless array of people: Anna Maria Alberghetti came in to audition, Connie Stevens, it was amazing the people who came in…it was like 'Oh, I've been a fan of yours forever.' People like Ann Blyth, Jane Powell," he says.

Still, stars will come in only after the piece leaves its Houston premiere. "Houston audiences might be disappointed when we ultimately put some major stars in it," Young says, "but if you start putting Shirley MacLaine and Bette Midler in this piece now, it's gonna be 'No, I need a comedy song here,' or 'No, I don't like that line.' We want to find the heart of the piece, and once the writers are comfortable with what we've done, then we can put the stars in and you tailor the roles to the needs of these ladies."

Baby Jane was scheduled to premiere last season, but -- even after seven years of workshopping -- it wasn't ready. New set designs have made all the difference, Young says. While he admits "you never know," you can't be a theatrical producer without dreaming you've got a hit on your hands.

Does he need a hit? Probably not, but even as TUTS enters its glamorous new home it faces pressing questions. The subscription base -- the bread-and-butter, money-in-the-bank people -- is aging.

"The demographics are changing dramatically everywhere," says Jenkins of Dallas. "The new -- I don't want to use the term 'dot-com,' but the dot-com crowd doesn't want to buy subscriptions. They don't want to commit to an entire season."

"Most places around the country are reporting lower subscriptions," says TUTS's Breckenridge. "People live for the moment, and they don't plan their lives out a year in advance."

TUTS is coming off three tough years, where it has been forced to mount shows in the summer ("Our audiences are not trained to see shows in the summer," Young says), in various venues around town.

Currently there are about 18,000 subscribers, Breckenridge says. That's down from a high of about 30,000 in the mid-'90s.

TUTS has just launched its newest annual subscription campaign of mailouts and advertising. Results won't be known for some weeks, but the organization's goal is 25,000 subscribers, the number it had in its last full year in the Music Hall.

As always, the campaign requires keeping current subscribers while attracting new ones. Sometimes those are two differing goals: People who renew do so because they like what they see each year; people who haven't signed up may have passed because they haven't been enticed by what's offered.

"The core that renews each year is 70 percent -- those are the diehards who are going to renew every year as long as there's some mainstream stuff and reliable titles," Breckenridge says.

Other customers -- who will have to fork over up to $370 for the six shows -- have to be lured by the lineup.

The dichotomy is demonstrated clearly in Dallas, which puts on a summer season full of traditional, TUTS-like shows (this year includes Cats, 42nd Street, My Fair Lady and Some Like It Hot) and a fall season with edgier stuff like Rent and more obscure pieces. The summer season has 32,000 subscribers, the fall has 7,800, Jenkins says; a mere 500 people subscribe to both.

Young says TUTS considered shutting completely for the three "nomad" years between the demolition of the Music Hall and the opening of the Hobby Center. A marketing study showed that if they kept performing they would lose a quarter of their subscriber base ("And arrogant Frank," Young says, "said to them, 'Oh, please, it's TUTS; those who know us will stay with us, they'll get first choice of seats'; well, we lost 27 percent").

The organization raised $4 million in grants and donations as a "bridge fund" to tide them over while they waited for the Hobby Center.

Not performing would have been worse, Young says: "They told us, 'You would have no subscribers.' "

Moving into a sensational new facility might seem an easy sell -- after all, the Astros drew more than three million fans their first year at Enron Field despite one of their most dismal seasons -- making it perhaps a good time to try to stretch by doing something less tried-and-true.

Not at TUTS. "We have been very careful in planning this first season around things that we know are going to be popular with audiences," Young says. "So we can get a double whammy, because this [marketing] group also said, 'The minute you come back your subscriptions could double, they could go through the roof. But it's a temporary thing; they might stay one or two years, and if you don't win them over they're gone, they'll try something else.' "

So the first season will be much like the seasons before it. Young may not always agree with what he is sure is the conservative nature of TUTS audiences, but he has no doubt he has them pegged.

On a recent New York trip, he took in a one-woman autobiographical show by Bea Arthur, the star of the old TV series The Golden Girls.

"Bea Arthur's show is really nasty," he says. "She says 'fuck' ten or 12 times, she says 'cocksucker,' so it's not for the faint of heart. I kept thinking, 'Oh, God, how are my blue-hairs going to handle this?' She tells these wonderful stories, about things like Tony Curtis fucking his first movie star, and I stood there thinking, 'Oh, God, I don't know how Houston is going to take this.' I think there's a place for that in Houston; I don't know if it's something for TUTS to do, but it's something the Hobby Center might could do, it's very commercial, every place she played [on tour] it really sold out."

Besides the questions of taste, Young and TUTS are also facing questions of finance. They find themselves in an increasingly intense battle with the media giant Clear Channel Entertainment.

Clear Channel is what used to be known as Pace, and it puts on its own series of touring Broadway shows each year. The company has immense financial resources -- it owns 1,200 radio stations and 130 concert venues across the country -- and it's not afraid to use them.

The two groups have somewhat different aims. Clear Channel is more likely to bring the newer shows, hits like The Full Monty and The Producers, that are making their first tours after opening on Broadway. Those shows are too high-priced for TUTS.

"Pace will bring in The Producers; TUTS will bring in The Producers 20 years from now, when it's a comeback vehicle for Josh Hartnett," says Joe Leydon, regional theater critic for Variety.

Still, some of the shows that TUTS would have gotten when it was the only game in town now go to Clear Channel. "A lot of the newer, bigger stuff, TUTS won't get the rights to them," says Holly of the actors union.

Young remains confident the town is big enough for the two groups.

TUTS, as a nonprofit, survives mostly on ticket sales. The rule of thumb is that shows pay for themselves, and grants and donations -- and some relatively small hotel-tax money -- pay for the overhead. Last season the organization had almost $9 million in expenses and about $6 million in revenue, with groups like the Wortham Foundation and the Houston Endowment largely making up the rest.

As he is with everything else, Young is an ebullient fund-raiser. He loves to regale a gathering with a good theater anecdote, like the time he battled with Debbie Reynolds about the overtime-inducing length of her Unsinkable Molly Brown. He finally cut the orchestra off at the three-hour mark -- right in the middle of her bows. "We went backstage after, she slammed the door in my face, and we haven't spoken since," he says.

"He's a charming, personable guy, always entertaining," says Udden of the Main Street Theater. "We kind of all fall into that trap -- when you're running an organization like us or TUTS, you gotta be 'on' all the time; there's a kind of dancing-bear aspect to it all."

"He has this incredible knowledge, he's always positive and energetic," says the NAMT's Biggs. "He's hysterical, always the life of the party."

"The bad news is that it's getting harder and harder to do new work," says McCollum of Rent. "The good news is that here's a man who has been doing it for 35 years. It's never been harder to do it than it is today, and he still approaches it all with enthusiasm and energy."

At 61, Young indeed shows no signs of slowing down. His life has been TUTS, and whether you think that means he's responsible for tepid, timid musical theater in Houston or that he's brought in years and years of sparkling big-time entertainment, there's little question he's made a mark.

"We don't do shows for the critics," he says. "We have to do shows our audiences want to see…Especially when you operate at the level I do. We'll have 60,000 people see a show. So if I do some avant-garde -- you know, Sondheim is always risky, but I've done a lot of Sondheim over the years -- you've got to package that with something that has tap dancing and comedy and whatever it's going to take to keep a musical theater audience happy."

That's what he's been doing for his long career at TUTS: keeping things light and breezy, tossing an occasional bone to the critics -- and the people those critics are talking for.

And as they move into their stunning new $100 million home, there's little prospect things will change. Tony Curtis, after all, is taking tap lessons.

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