When the white-tie-and-gown crowd enters the Academy of Music Saturday night to fete the 161-year-old hall, the birthday girl, too, will appear in a high state of polish. The new chandelier imported from France, the stately renovated ballroom with windows opened to a Broad Street view, and a partially restored exterior have added luster over the past few years where previously there was a shabbiness decidedly unchic.
Less obvious are the needs, which are enormous and ongoing, and whose costs are offset by proceeds from the annual Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball. The guest this year is Steve Martin. He’ll be brandishing a banjo, and he knows how to use it.
If concertgoers bother to look, they might see substantial work is required on the building’s exterior cornice, and the cupola atop the building is flaking paint at an increasing rate. Seating needs to be replaced. The murals on the ceiling cry out for restoration — not to mention more respect than the holes that have been punched through to accommodate lighting grids for Broadway shows hosted at the venue.
The Academy of Music is also an institution, a cultural mecca with an identity apart from that of its owner, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and its operator, the Kimmel Center. Strengthening the organizational advocacy for the building is a priority for the Academy’s chairman, Caroline B. “Cackie” Rogers, who took over last spring. Rogers says the academy board needs to function more like a board than just a committee, requires a succession plan for developing leadership, and must broaden its base.
“Most of the people on the board or a great deal of them like myself have been on the board since it was formed, and some of them are getting older and tired and won’t necessarily want to take on a leadership position,” says Rogers, daughter of Elia and Jim Buck, who was until his death a partial owner of the Phillies. “On the other hand, some of the Young Friends [of the Academy of Music] are not ready to take on a leadership position, so we need some more people in the 40s-to-50s age groups that are really ready to dig into the academy and what it stands for.”
What it stood for when the building was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s home, from 1900 to 2001, was clear to understand. Now it is a multi-use hall for Opera Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and Broadway shows, and the orchestra has not had in years an archivist who can help remind Philadelphians of the building’s role as the city’s formal parlor and gathering space. This comes at a time when most other historical organizations are digitizing their archives and sending out images and historical tidbits to foster support.
It’s on the list, Rogers says of bringing back an archivist.
But so is so much else. Prioritizing the academy’s needs is tricky. It means aligning what must be done and what would be nice to have done; the availability of the hall and working around its heavy booking schedule; and the interests of donors who might be lured by specific projects.
“I think really right now all the safety issues are at the top of my list, such as some electrical work and the façade and cornice that have to be addressed,” says Rogers. “They are not sexy things, like the chandelier or the ceiling, but these are just like the HVAC system. You can’t be sitting in the academy and have the heat go off, or be walking down Broad Street and have pointing mortar come down.”
The academy board has approved about $1 million in capital projects in coming months, says Philadelphia Orchestra interim co-president Matthew Loden, the orchestra’s liaison to the academy. The work includes electrical upgrades in the hall and installation of new LED lighting on the building exterior; pointing and brickwork on the Locust Street side and some carpentry work around the windows, plus repairing some brickwork on chimneys; and more replacements to the HVAC systems.
That $1 million does not include the $25,000 to $75,000 in plaster repair and painting projects that seem to crop up every year, he added.
Over the last three years, the academy has spent $3.8 million on capital projects, Loden said. Right now, the academy has not taken on a fund-raising campaign to pay for a large multiyear, multimillion-dollar project, but it may do so in the future.
“It’s a very special place, and we take the stewardship of the building very seriously,” said Loden.
And what about the format of the ball? The word itself — a ball in 2018, for goodness sake — is antiquated, and the idea of men getting into not a mere tuxedo, but a set of long tails and white tie (some even don a top hat), seems nearly like an act of theater.
Should it be held at another time of year, to avoid the snow that shuttered the ball in 2016 and to bring in tony Philadelphians who don’t attend because they are in Florida? The slot on the calendar will stay for now. What about guest talent? The pop musicians who started coming a few years ago have evolved into starry guest hosts. With guest hosts, “we don’t have to pay as much as a Sting or Billy Joel just to bring people in,” says Rogers, “and this year’s response to Steve Martin has been incredible. Concert-only tickets have flown off the shelf.”
In fact, as of Tuesday, both the concert and ball were sold out.
Banjo may bring down-home connotations, but on the other side of the academy’s proscenium, the audience will be, as always, dressed to the nines.
“We did poll the audience after last year’s ball just to make sure we were on the right page with white tie and tails,” said Rogers, and “absolutely, universally” patrons wanted to keep the tradition, “because it differentiates us. People think it’s fun to get truly dressed up. I think what people want is the old-world glamour.”
There’s not a more glamorous building around.