Story of the organist-gardener who became one of the continent’s most successful concert managers
BILL TRENT FRAYNENovember11942
BILL TRENT FRAYNE
Story of the organist-gardener who became one of the continent’s most successful concert managers
OUT INTO the glare of the footlights strode Mr. Lawrence Tibbett and, while his brilliant smile would never suggest it, apprehension rode on Mr. Tibbett’s every step.
It was an October night in 1933 and forty-one hundred music lovers were assembled in Winnipeg’s new Auditorium, bent on hearing the tall, dark and handsome singing star of stage, screen and radio. But if they had known that Mr. Tibbett’s accompanist, Stewart Wille, had been taken suddenly ill only two hours before, undoubtedly they would have shared the uneasiness of the impeccable American baritone.
They would have realized, of course, that a baritone who has lost his accompanist feels only slightly less futile than a baritone who has lost his voice.
Seated at the near-by piano in place of the regular accompanist was a small bespectacled gentleman of perhaps fifty-five. He was immaculate in tails, and liis grey, neatly trimmed hair fringed a barren, shining pate. And a good many of the forty-one hundred music lovers must have been startled to spot him as the dead image of the man who had handed them their tickets at the box office a short time before.
Nor did their eyes deceive them. The same Fred M. Gee who had doled out the ducats in the lobby was the Fred M. Gee who unconcernedly followed the whimsical nuances of Mr. Tibbett’s expressive voice—a task of utmost subtlety and delicacy.
And today Fred M. Gee, impresario of the largest single concert series under one management on the continent—both from the point of numbers of concerts per season and the number of prepaid season-ticket holders—cherishes the memory of his dual role that night in the form of adetter which Tibbett later wrote him from New York.
“To Fred,” the letter runs . . . “As a manager you are a great sight-reading accompanist. It was surely a‘tour de force’ • • • Gratefully, Lawrence.”
Hummingbirds and Humans
THE TRADE paper, Variety, in noting that the Canadian concert business grossed $300,000 for its annual concerts during the 1941-42 season, has this to say about Gee:
“Canada’s greatest concert course is in Winnipeg, with Fred Gee the impresario. This is probably the biggest course in either the U.S. or Canada, which means the world. Gee presents eleven attractions, all stellar artists, and pays $25,000 for them.”
Gee confirms that Winnipeg’s concert course is not surpassed anywhere on the continent. But he’d rather talk about Nelson Eddy. Or putter about in his rambling, beautifully kept summer home at Victoria Beach near Winnipeg. Or discuss his problems in amateur color-movie photography.
I travelled to Victoria Beach one day this summer to chat with Gee. It was a hot, typical prairie July day and I found him in his garden—“Covers four fifths of an acre,” he readily supplied—garbed in a battered pair of khaki trousers, torn straw hat which allowed the sun to reflect off a corner of his
sunburned head and a grey work shirt open at the throat.
He turned out to be a fast-talking little man, incredibly active for his sixty years. He spoke in clipped sentences with faint English accent and his fund of knowledge about the stars of the concert world was amazing. Most of them are his personal friends.
“Starting my thirty-first season this October,” he said. “Been in the musical business all my life.”
When he brought Nelson Eddy to the Winnipeg Amphitheatre in April of 1938—the Auditorium couldn’t accommodate the crowdthe entire house
of 7,200 was sold out six months before the concert.
“That was because of the movies,” he said. “Women mobbed him. To avoid recognition, he wore a big, ugly pair of goggles and that’s what started the rumor he was going blind ...”
While he talked, Gee dug contentedly for weeds, rooting them out, and pausing now and then to point out a hummingbird.
“Delphiniums attract them,” he sagely advised. “The purples and the blues and the mauves just naturally attract those hummingbirds. I’ve got some wonderful colored movies of them. Like to see ’em?”
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He attacks his hobbies as vigorously as his work, strives for perfection in each. He firmly believes that concert music has a place in wartime and if anyone is qualified to speak on the subject it is Fred M. Gee. He has six sons and four of them are serving in the armed forces. The others probably would be doing the same thing except that they’re sixteen and thirteen and still a little young.
“Yes,” Gee says emphatically, “I’m convinced that music lovers want the respite of concerts. It’s proved by the fact our patronage in the last two years was the biggest in our history. It fell off a little in 1939, when the people were jittery, but in the next two years we didn’t have enough seats to accommodate ’em.”
“Even this year,” he goes on, “with a thirty per cent government tax, our advance sale is well up. And look at England ! There aren’t enough movie houses to take care of the crowds over there. People who like music and movies can forget their troubles for a few hours in the theatres.”
He prodded persistently at the weeds and sucked absently at his pipe, pausing periodically to apply a match to the bowl.
“Ever hear about the time Kirsten Flagstad, the great Wagnerian soprano with the Metropolitan, appeared at Winnipeg?” he asked suddenly.
“Our audiences are slow to warm up, you know. After her first group of songs I thought she might be a little annoyed by the slow response, so when she came back to the wings I said to her, ‘Don’t mind our crowds, Miss Flagstad. They will warm up.’
“She looked at me for a moment and then smiled. ‘Oh, that’s all right, Mr. Gee,’ she said. ‘You see, Fve sung in Toronto.’ ”
That, apparently, explained that.
FRED MALSON GEE was born in Cardiff, South Wales—-“same birthplace as Alec Templeton,” he proudly proclaims—of English parents in 1882. He was a choirboy there and since choirboys served as ushers at concerts, little Fred M. thus heard many great Continental stars in his youth. His father was organist in a Cardiff church and when Fred was fifteen he too had become church organist.
He hopped on a tramp steamer in 1902 and embarked on a world cruise. Eventually, he reached Canada and since he wasn’t exactly overburdened with money he did a spot of harvesting south of Winnipeg. Then he moved into town and became the organist at Westminster church.
“I did all sorts of accompaniment and concert work too,” Fred M. recalls. “In fact, I liked it so well that I figured I might as well settle down in these parts.”
Winnipeg seemed to like its music but no one ever thought to import a virtuoso and Fred, remembering the
Cardiff concerts, thought this might be an oversight upon which he could capitalize.
So, in 1911, he hired Central church and brought in a rsing young violinist, Mischa Elman, and from then until 1927 Winnipeg got its musical culture two or three times a year in the little church.
That was all right as a sideline, Fred figured, but he had bigger ideas. The fact that they couldn’t materialize for fifteen years never troubled Fred. He was a patient man and a determined one. It wasn’t until 1927 that he decided to throw up all other work and concentrate on a Celebrity Series. But once he had made up his mind, nothing could stop him.
He pedalled a bicycle from door to door, showing a concert prospectus and a blueprint of Central church. He sold 750 season tickets in his personal cycling campaign, practically shoving his concert series ideas down Winnipeg’s throat.
If the folks bought the tickets in the beginning in self-defense against the defiant little man on the front porch, they never regretted it thereafter. The series caught on and it wasn’t long before Fred had abandoned his bike.
Actually 1932 was the turning point. There was such a pre-season demand for tickets that Gee made a special trip to New York and pleaded with the agents to give him the artists for two nights instead of the usual one. They thought they had a mental case on their hands. This was the middle of the depression and here was a gent from the wilds of Canada demanding two-night stands. Now they’d seen everything.
But the little man who had talked himself blue in the face selling tickets in a door to door canvass wasn’t going to be sidetracked by a handful of Doubting Thomases. After what he’d been through, it was child’s play to out-talk the agents. He got Grace Moore and Lawrence Tibbett for two nights each and they, in turn, got $4,000.
“I never parted with $4,000 more cheerfully,” says Fred. “After the appearance of Miss Moore and Tibbett, the Celebrity Series was definitely established.”
With the completion of the Winnipeg Auditorium in 1933, Fred was in like the well-known burglar. In 1934 he increased his series to eleven concerts.
“The Auditorium is the finest concert hall in Canada,” Gee announces bluntly. “Artists like the violinist, Heifetz, and Tibbett have told me the acoustics are flawless. Massey Hall in Toronto has excellent acoustics, too, but lacks our seating accommodation.”
The Auditorium has 3,800 seats and there isn’t a post in the place.
The increased seating capacity enabled Gee to bring in such celebrated groups as the Russian Ballet, the Don Cossack Choir and the Minneapolis Symphony. Also it enabled him to present an attractive price scale which he believes is one of the lowest in the world.
He Picks ’Em Personally
TODAY vigorous Fred M. Gee is a successful businessman, the impresario of the largest concert course under one management on the continent. Other cities, naturally, have more concerts, but not in one series or under one management.
Today Gee receives letters from Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Los Angeles and Vancouver and from impresarios in many other American and Canadian cities where attendance is sometimes discouraging. They want to know his secret of success.
Every February he flies to New York to select personally his artists for the following season. He spends six weeks in Big Town, attending operas and concerts, sometimes taking in snatches of three different ones a day, whipping from Carnegie Hall to the Met to Radio City in rapid succession.
He listens to the great and to the unknown and when he has hit this killing pace for six weeks he selects his performers.
“I’d sooner hear some promising young soloist who is unknown than take in John Charles Thomas,” he says. “1 know what Thomas can do but I never know when I might chance upon some rising young star whom I know would thrill Winnipeg audiences.”
That’s part of his secret of success; his personal shopping tour. It produces a pleasing blend of today’s stars and tomorrow’s “names.” The public, too, has a hand in his selection. Throughout the winter season patrons are given ballots bearing the names of twenty-five or thirty artists. During intermission they indicate on the ballots the names of the artists they would like to see next season. If it is humanly possible to procure the most popular artists, Fred M. will procure them.
All of this has helped to give Winnipeg the continent’s largest season ticket total; more than 3,500 subscribers every fall before the first of the eleven concerts is presented.
Gee, with his frank, ingratiating manner of speech, can list other reasons, aside from the thoughtful, painstaking method of selecting artists, for Winnipeg’s response to his Celebrity Series. Long winters in a city that is entertainment conscious; and the fact that Fred himself has the confidence of the public because of his lengthy musical background in Winnipeg. He estimates that he has given 30,000 music lessons to children who have grown up to be today’s subscribers.
Fred M. has helped in the development of concert programs throughout the West. In 1934 he expanded his interests to Edmonton and Saskatoon and today the Alberta capital has five concerts each season and Saskatoon three. Also, he assisted J. Gordon Hilker in the establishment of a concert series at Vancouver and Victoria in 193G.
Two years ago he handled the ticket sale for the Navy League’s Gracie Fields concert at Winnipeg. The Lancashire Lass thrilled 14,000 people in the Amphitheatre in two performances, and then went next door onto Osborne Stadium’s football gridiron to sing for 10,000 more, a total of nearly 25,000 during the two nights.
It hasn’t been Gee’s experience to find the artists temperamental. Most of them, he describes as being good troupers. Lily Pons, he recalls, suffered an attack of lumbago halfway through a concert.
“She was afraid to bow, almost afraid to move as she carried on her program graciously,” Gee says. “The attack was so bad that she was wheeled to her train on a stretcher the next day.”
Another night José Iturbi was forced to discontinue his violin pyrotechnics because the piano was not in tune.
“There is a tuner in the house constantly,” Fred M. relates. “We drew the curtain and Iturbi stood by smilingly while the piano was tuned.”
But he’d been talking too much, the vigorous little man protested mildly. He was at Victoria Beach to forget about his concerts. Besides, the hummingbirds were whirring into the delphiniums again and his camera was freshly loaded with film.
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