It’s not so much about saving the Detroit Music Hall as it is about saving the soul of Detroit. Because Detroit’s soul has always been defined by the music. It was the cars that defined our economy and toned the city’s muscles, but Detroit music has always been about the soul.
And that’s why saving the Detroit Music Hall is not just important, it is mandatory. There are certain things that you don’t want to lose, and then there are those things that you simply cannot afford to lose under any set of circumstances. For trustee Vivian Carpenter, it’s more about the kids than it is about the capital campaign currently underway to raise the funds needed to stay open.
“What has motivated me to participate in such a major effort in a major way is the programming that it does for the children in Detroit Public Schools. And a lot of people don’t understand that the Music Hall is a not for profit, and it has a music program. In the face of DPS taking the budget cuts that they have, the arts and the music programs, they’ve been decimated,” she said.
“The Music Hall has stepped up to the plate and it’s been sending teachers. I mean no other institution is able to send music teachers into the schools to supplement. And they’ve been doing that and most people don’t even know it. And even as the Music Hall struggled, it kept up this commitment to the kids to try to keep the music programs going. And to me that is absolutely critical. This is Motown. And you can’t strip music out of the soul of the city. And I’m also a trustee at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church. And I know how important the music programming and the training that the children get in the schools are to feeding our choirs.”
A total of $1.7 million must be raised by April 30 to repay a loan that was taken out in 2008 to keep things running. The Hall is launching a five-year campaign to raise a grand total of $7 million needed not only to retire the debt but to make sure the non-profit remains on stable footing as it moves into the future. The Music Hall fell on tough times close to a decade ago when the financial crisis that swept the country swept them up with it and they have been struggling and hanging on by a thread ever since. A fundraiser featuring Chaka Khan is scheduled for Feb. 12 at 8 pm.
“$7 million is the magic number for the Music Hall. It will pay off the legacy debt,” said Board President Alex Parrish. “It will also give them adequate working capital, and also will provide for some maintenance. And a little bit of a cash cushion. So our goal is to get to the $7 million. The critical part is to get the first $1.7 million, which we need to have done in April. But thanks to Vivian and John, there’s a good chance we’ll get that done in February.”
Now that the word has gone out and been more broadly publicized about the Hall’s plight, an impressive list of donors – both organizations and individuals – have come forward with checkbooks wide open. To date more than $700,000 has been raised, and there is a possibility that the entire $1.7 million might be paid off before the end of February with the help of a successful fundraiser.
Jon Barfield, who is one of those leading the charge to save the Hall, together with his wife, Vivian, and board chairman Alex Parrish, remembered his reaction when he first heard how dire the situation was.
“I had no idea that the Music Hall was in trouble, and around that time I got an opportunity to perform with my new band at the Music Hall in what they call the “Titans of Industry” series. These are well-known and somewhat successful AA business people who have a passion and play music. And Paula Boggs, who is the former general counsel of Starbucks, kicked off the series a couple of months ago. They asked me to perform on Feb. 12.
“In my early 20s I was a professional musician. I played tenor saxophone in the New York area. When I went to law school I got too busy to play and I put it away for 40 years. I started playing again last February and when I got the booking at the Music Hall, and went in to meet with the staff, I found out that they were in desperate straits.
“So what started as an opportunity for me to perform my music has now morphed into a greater mission, which is to help keep the doors of the Music Hall open beyond April 30, which is the date that the lender will close on the property.
“When I found out about the plight of the Music Hall, …I became really passionate around trying to help them raise money. Amidst the resurgence of downtown, I just feel passionately about not letting our institutions, those that appeal to our diverse community, go out of business when other institutions are being well-served.”
Alex Parrish, who has been board chairman for the past five years, feels the same way. He also strongly appreciates the rich history of the place.
“The Music Hall has been around for 80-some years. It was built by a woman, Matilda Dodge Wilson. And she had a fairly egalitarian approach to things. So when the Music Hall opened in 1928, it was open to the entire community, including the AA community, which was unusual in those days. It’s got a long history. If you look at the roster of performers, you’ll see that every great performer in the United States, and probably internationally, has been there. All the great jazz stars. Very diverse offerings over many years.
“And then starting in the ‘50s, the black community became very associated with the Music Hall. I understand A. Franklin’s father used to have sermons down there. It became the theater that opened up to African American [dramas], so when Tyler Perry was doing his plays, he was at the Music Hall. It’s been very open, and today it is the most diverse cultural institution, not only in Detroit but I think in America,” he said.
The board of trustees is close to 50 percent African American and 40 percent female, he said.
“It’s the people’s theater because we really try to address everyone. You go in there some nights and you’ll see 1,000 Asian people watching the Chinese acrobats. And the next night it’ll be 1,700 black people listening to an urban stage play. So it’s really covered the waterfront. The programming, the patronage is diverse. The staff. It’s really a very special place. It’s a crossroads for the community. Everybody comes together there and we interact with each other, and that really makes it quite a gem for Detroit.
“Music Hall’s been doing all this great stuff in the community with no budget. They put on 300 shows in the Hall. They educate about 25,000 students in the public schools.”
Some of those who have contributed to the Hall include:
Kedrick D. Adkins, Jr.
George P. Barnes, Jr.
Marsha L. Bass
Derek T. Batts
Vivian L. Carpenter
Walter Douglas Sr.
Michele & Paul Samuels
Carol & Tom Goss
Ann & Ron Hall
Joyce Hayes Giles
Conrad Mallett, Jr.
Pam & Alex Parrish
James Settles, Jr.