Despite the post-concert euphoria of 1934, it was time for the truth. While paper had covered the wet benches, nothing covered the parking field but sopping and oozing Berkshire mud. The cars had churned up the mud, the parking area was unlit, and there were no obvious parking lanes or slots. Concertgoers ruined shoes, circling around in the dark trying to find their cars. These concerns would have to be addressed for the 1935 concert season. Photo courtesy of Carole Owens.

DATELINE STOCKBRIDGE: 1935 — A difficult year for the Berkshire Symphonic Festival

The message was clear: Come to the Berkshires for a concert week not a single concert.

With one season under their belts, Berkshire Symphonic Festival (BSF) Clerk George Edman wrote, “We hope to make the Berkshires so well known that no one will want to go anywhere else.”

From the genesis of BSF, the volunteer board had two goals: to boost the Berkshires and to present classical music. At a rate of $50 per week for five months, BSF hired a “flack” to get the word out. Newspaperman Elmore Leffinwell agreed to write two releases a week and place them in 250 metropolitan papers.

Conductor Henry Hadley, in response to criticism about the quality of the concerts, increased the orchestra from 65 to 85, most from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and added a chorus of 200 voices and a piano soloist. In the future, the order of the goals—promote the Berkshires first and play classical music second—would cause problems, but for now, enthusiasm from the first concert series “engendered great vitality.”

Unfortunately, vitality was not enough. When the board met at the end of June, the receipts from subscriptions sold to date were $8,000, $6,000 short of the $14,000 needed. The eight guarantors stepped forward and were joined by three others. The board approached Hanna and asked him to reduce the rental fee for his grounds from $100 to $1. In a move that would presage the future, Hanna reduced the rent but refused to rent to the BSF and rented instead to the town of Stockbridge. The planning went forward, but there was a new note of concern.

During the post-concert euphoria of 1934, it was hard to discern that anything had gone wrong, but in light of the $8,000 shortfall, it was time for the truth. On July 23, Robinson Smith put out a press release and attempted to anticipate and alleviate any lingering doubt in a potential ticket-buyer’s mind. Embedded in Robinson Smith’s reassurance was a clear statement of the 1934 problems. While paper had covered the wet benches, nothing covered the parking field but sopping and oozing Berkshire mud. Mary’s lavender dress may have stayed dry, but what of her shoes? The cars had churned up the mud, the parking area was unlit, and there were no obvious parking lanes or slots. Concertgoers ruined shoes, circling around in the dark trying to find their cars. It was not a high point of the concert experience, nor was inching toward the festival grounds behind a thousand other automobiles. The food, a feature on the festival grounds since the first concert, had not been varied or good enough to please the customers, and summer thunder rumbling just off stage kept last-minute ticket buyers at home.

Robinson Smith announced that the 1935 concert series would go forward on August 8, 10, and 11 as scheduled. A huge tent, capable of seating 3,000 people, would be erected next to the open-air benches “to provide against any interruption by rain.” The refreshments on offer would be improved because the women of the Pittsfield Junior League were taking charge (and splitting profits 50-50 with the BSF). State police would direct traffic, and parking arrangements would be improved: An additional parking area would be opened, and Stockbridge police and firemen would patrol the parking area.

At that crucial moment when so much was being promised to potential ticket buyers, BSF lost two valuable players. Owen Johnson who had superintended the grounds preparation in 1934 stepped down and was replaced by Joseph Franz of Stockbridge. Robinson Smith was called to Europe by a family tragedy and asked Vice President Georgie de Heredia to step in as acting president. Edman continued to oversee plans and publicity.

Edman ramped up the publicity, pointing to a cultural cornucopia in the Berkshires with the Berkshire Playhouse, Ted Shawn’s Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow, and the Berkshire Museum, all in the neighborhood of the Berkshire Music Festival grounds. For those less culturally inclined, “the fourteen local golf, country, and hunt clubs have agreed to extend guest privileges to those attending the Symphonic Festival.” The message was clear: Come to the Berkshires for a concert week not a single concert.

In a move that was both income-generating and good publicity, Mrs. deHeredia invited all the six New England governors to her Berkshire Cottage, Wheatleigh, for dinner and then to the opening concert. It mattered less that in the end only two, the governors of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, attended. What mattered was that the publicity generated by Mrs. de Heredia’s invitation boosted ticket sales. Billy Miles carefully scheduled the play “Déclassé,” starring Ethel Barrymore at the Berkshire Playhouse during festival week and announced that he would escort the legendary actress to the opening concert. As the list of luminaries increased, the halcyon days of the Gilded Age in the Berkshires were invoked—days when Vanderbilts, Astors, and Morgans hosted dinners, teas, dances, and horseshows. In the depth of the Great Depression, the festival was boosting the local economy and local morale. Ticket sales rose.

Publicly, Edman enthused about 1934:

Have you heard the Siegried Idyll on a summer night outdoors when a sleepy in a nearby tree answers the orchestra bird of Wagner’s fantasy? Have you heard the great chords of the Fifth Symphony return in faint echo from distant pines on mountainside? Three thousand people enjoyed these thrills in one night of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival last year.

Ticket sales continued to rise. But underlying the high-pitched enthusiasm was the constant low rumble of Edman’s voice repeating: HHad the concerts in ’34 been of a higher quality, sales would be easier this year.

The first concert of 1935 was scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 8. Repeatedly assured that he would be coming, Massachusetts Governor Curley did come—hours late. He missed entirely the dinner in his honor at Wheatleigh hosted by Acting President Georgie de Heredia, and the opening concert was held up 30 minutes awaiting his arrival, and the audience cheered.

Governor Curley was a legendary Massachusetts politician. He was the model for Skeffington in “The Last Hurrah.” He was a dynamic speaker who always said the right thing and never let the truth stand in the way of a good story or a good punch line. Late, facing a potentially exasperated audience, he stepped to the microphone, welcomed his fellow governor from Rhode Island and the 3,500 in the audience. He praised and thanked everyone from Hadley and Robinson Smith to the ushers and the boy scouts volunteering as “runners.” And then the governor pledged $5,000 in state funds to the BSF for the 1936 concerts. It was a great moment. All the moments since 1936 when no check arrived have slipped by unnoticed. For that moment, the governor beamed, the audience cheered, the conductor raised his baton; the future was assured.