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.

In the 20th century, presenting free classical music concerts under starry summer skies was one of the determinants of a city’s civility. This gratis dispensation of high culture to the lumpen proletariat was usually the providence of a benefactor who was able to marshal the resources of both City Hall and the local swells to make it happen. In Philadelphia, this was Fredric R. Mann. Perpetually formal, but with a gruff demeanor and a stogie forever clenched between his teeth, he was a big-hearted grouch whose savage beast was tamed by the sonorous music of the pre-rock-and-roll era: classical, opera, the scores of Broadway.

For nearly 40 years, Freddy Mann curated a star-studded summer concert series at the roofless Robin Hood Dell in East Fairmount Park, where performances were routinely shortened by the cruel impetuousness of the weather. He hatched a plan for a free classical music series jointly funded by the city and private contributors, and in the years that arrangement was in place, an estimated six million tickets to see the Philadelphia Orchestra were given away. In the 1970s, Mann finally convinced the city to build a new 13,500-seat, state-of-the art amphitheater on a grassy bluff in West Fairmount Park, where performers would be shielded from the elements by a vast cedar dome.

In 1978, the Robin Hood Dell West was renamed the Mann Music Center. While the venue thrived under Freddy Mann’s leadership, his death in 1987 at the age of 83 marked the onset of a period of drift and decline for his namesake performance space. The years that followed would see the venue wither in the face of crushing debt, declining audience share and stiff corporate competition, until it was nearly extinct by the turn of the century.

In the past decade, though, the Mann has mercifully experienced something of a renaissance, rebranded as a hip destination for indie rock, craft beer, and breathtaking views of the city skyline—a treasure to be celebrated and preserved.