An Oral History of the Mann Center

There may be no finer way to spend a summer evening in Philadelphia than sitting on a blanket and listening to the sweet sounds of the Mann Music Center. Here, an oral history of the city’s beloved cultural jewel.

ELIZABETH WARSHAWER, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Curtis Institute of Music: Going to the Robin Hood Dell was my first introduction to summers in Philadelphia. It was a wonderfully convenient and inexpensive way to be entertained.

Jane Gitomer, granddaughter of Fredric Mann: My grandfather started running the Robin Hood Dell back in the ’40s.

Jerry Grabey, Mann vice president and general manager: Freddy Mann was the last of the true impresarios, a real character who wore a lot of hats. He was appointed ambassador to Barbados by Lyndon Johnson.

Joe Kluger, past president of the Philadelphia Orchestra: Freddy gave Zubin Mehta his break as a young conductor. He had this fatherly, grandfatherly relationship with all of the great artists of that generation—­Mehta, Itzhak Perlman, Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern—and as a result, he was able to get them to perform at the Mann. A lot of them didn’t like performing in humid 90-degree weather on the Fourth of July. But Freddy was able to twist their arms.

Vikhail Baryshnikom, legendary­ ballet dancer: Freddy was very quirky, a real teddy bear. I really loved him. He was famous for vodka and cigars and late-night dinners that went to two or three in the morning in his Rittenhouse Square apartment after the show. Lots of laughs and booze and happiness. He was like a grandpa to me.

Larry Magid, co-founder of Electric Factory Concerts: So you could go out there with a date and sit on a blanket on the lawn. Didn’t matter if you liked classical music or not.

Daryl Hall: As a kid, I watched The Rite of Spring at Robin Hood Dell.

Jane Gitomer: There was just one problem: Robin Hood Dell had no covering, not even onstage. So if it started to rain, everyone would just pick up their instruments and run. That was the main reason for building the Mann—the Orchestra refused to sign another contract to play without covering.

Joe Kluger: Freddy went to Mayor Rizzo and said, “Will the city build this amphitheater in Fairmount Park? I will give away all of the tickets to the classical concerts for free. All I will do is ask the people that are coming to the concerts to make a contribution. In consideration of doing that, you, the city, agree to provide a grant to the Mann Center that is equal to the contributions that the people coming to the concerts give.” It was called the Friends of the Mann program.

Jerry Grabey: You would clip coupons out of the Inquirer and mail them in to the Department of Recreation, and you would obtain free tickets for that performance. We opened June 22, 1976, and Rizzo came. He didn’t have a nightstick in his cummerbund, but he did have a very large bodyguard with him.

Jane Gitomer: It was a different time. People dressed nicely to come to a concert. My grandfather always wore a suit and tie no matter how hot it was. And he always walked the entire place; he wanted to see the crowd.

Jerry Grabey: When Russian ballet companies would come through, there would always be a lot of KGB. Then out in the audience there would be FBI agents keeping an eye on the KGB. They were supposed to be undercover, but they weren’t hard to spot. When Imelda Marcos came, you had a presence by just about every federal agency: Secret Service, State Department, FBI. She sat in Mr. Mann’s box with him. No exaggeration, she probably had 40 pairs of shoes with her.

Jane Gitomer: After the first year, they started having rock shows. And when I say “rock shows,” I mean Barry Manilow. But even that was a bit much for my grandfather. But he understood that it had to happen. Classical music alone wasn’t going to keep the lights on. It was a new era.

Larry Magid: By 1976, Electric Factory was a well-respected company. The Mann people asked if we would come in to discuss doing rock concerts. We were to meet at Fred Mann’s apartment in the Barclay at something like 7:30 in the morning. So we go there and he reads me the riot act about what could and couldn’t go on at these shows: “The one thing I don’t want is these kids getting up on their chairs or yelling and screaming. You know, this is a dignified place, and we spent a lot of money here, and it’s state-of-the-art.” So after going through his laundry list of do’s and don’ts, I said, “Okay, what do I have to sign?” He said, “There is nothing to sign,” and I said, “How do we make the agreement?” “Well, we shake hands and we have some vodka.” This is like eight o’clock in the morning. So he pours this Russian vodka, and we throw it back, shake hands again, and now Fred is feeling good. Then he says we have to do it again. Now that’s two shots of vodka, a handshake and a big hug. We were in business.

Stephen Starr, restaurateur and former concert promoter: Back in the early ’80s, Electric Factory was the only promoter allowed to do concerts there, and I was a young upstart. I needed to convince, cajole, and finally threaten legal action—I remember throwing the phrase “antitrust action” around a few times. Finally Mann relented. He says, “Okay, kid, we’ll give you a shot.” It went great, and eventually we were going head-to-head with Electric Factory. The funnest show we did was the Monkees reunion. We sold 50,000 tickets in 15 minutes.

Larry Magid: We wanted to come in as softly as possible. So we figure, “Well, who better? We’ll bring in Barry Manilow.” Manilow was very hot at the time, and people were very excited. I look down to see Mann coming up the steps. He is not a happy guy—he sees these women standing on chairs. And he grabs me and says, “Hey, kid, I thought I told you—people can’t stand on chairs. Look at that woman over there! Get her down right now.” And I said, “Are you sure?” and he says, “Absolutely.” At that point, the woman turns around, and it’s his daughter. He just clenches his cigar in his mouth and walks off in a huff. That was the last complaint I heard about people standing on chairs.

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  • TD

    great article…many fond memories