Monday, December 1, 2014

By L. L. Angell

Indian River Magazine, 2014 Holiday issue

The son of a Broadway legend, John Loesser has translated the business lessons he learned from his famous father into a formula for success for Stuart’s newly renovated Lyric Theatre

John Loesser remembers piggyback rides with author John Steinbeck and playtime with Liza Minnelli and Candice Bergen. Loesser, executive director of the Lyric Theatre in Stuart, is the son of composer-lyricist and Broadway musical giant Frank Loesser, whose hit shows include Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business
Without Really Trying.

“My dad was the last of the heyday, the golden age of Broadway composers,” Loesser says.

Loesser’s showbiz savoir-faire, plus the financial acumen he learned from his father, has served Loesser well. As executive director for the past 15 years, he has transformed The Lyric from a seldom-used landmark to one of the leading performance and concert theaters in South Florida.

Born in 1950, Loesser lived in Hollywood until age 5, when his family returned to New York City and Frank’s first love: Broadway. John’s mother, singer Lynn Garland, co-wrote "Baby, It’s Cold Outside", with Frank. The song employed the overlapping conversation style of two people talking. The couple initially performed the song at parties. In 1948, Frank Loesser sold the song rights to MGM, which included it in the 1949 Esther Williams’ movie Neptune’s Daughter. It went on to win an Academy Award that year for Best Original Song. Frank also won Tony Awards for Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, for which he also won a Pulitzer Prize.

The couple divorced in 1957, when John was 7. Two years later, Frank married Jo Sullivan, one of the leading performers in the musical Most Happy Fella. Frank died of lung cancer in 1969 when he was 59 and John was 19. “My father lived very well,” Loesser says. “Massive quantities of scotch, cigarettes and food. He could do anything he wanted and was really good at it.”

Loesser says that when his father wasn’t composing he was drawing cartoons and making furniture. “He was a master furniture maker and could recreate Chippendales in his home woodshop. He was also a cartoonist, using Pointillism in his doodles. We still have his huge collection of ballpoint pens and drawings,” Loesser says.

Loesser remembers his one shot at being a child star. Alfred Hitchcock visited one day and “He took one look at adorable little me, age 4, and told my parents he wanted me in a new film he was making called The Trouble with Harry. The plot calls for the little kid to discover a dead body. Well, my parents told Hitch, ‘No way,’ ’cause it might make me cry. Years later, I wondered, ‘What’s the big deal? My parents made me cry all the time anyway. I might have become the next Shirley Temple.’ ”

Instead of an overgrown child star, Loesser is a regular guy. Sitting at the Osceola Café on Flagler Avenue in the heart of Confusion Corner in downtown Stuart, he greets many passersby by name. Never mind that work crews are racing to finish the theater’s big face-lift in time for the first show of the season ― Lorrianna Colozzo performing A Night at the Opera on Nov. 14. Or that The Never Everglades, part of The Discovery Series, is slated for the morning of Nov. 18. Or that two days later is An Evening with Clint Black, on Nov. 20 and 21.

Hopscotching from the opera to children’s theater to country and western music is typical of Loesser, who wants The Lyric to be everybody’s theater. “I pay a lot of attention to who lives in this area,” he says. “I want to offer a broad spectrum of entertainment and keep ticket prices affordable.”

An early riser, Loesser starts his days with a drive from his island home in Vero Beach. En route, he listens to a wide range of music on satellite radio, including Top 40, classical and whatever is on NPR. He scans pop stations “tracking what’s up and coming,” arriving like clockwork for a 7 a.m. breakfast at the Osceola Café. He is dressed in his trademark baseball cap, tie, oxford shirt and blue jeans. As he enters the café, Loesser remembers an endless stream of Who’s Who in America.

“John Steinbeck was my dad’s best friend,” Loesser says over coffee. “And the guy talking to me and tugging his beard? That was Mitch Mitchell, the creator of Sing Along with Mitch.

Loesser calls his parents’ frequent parties “huge affairs filled with important people and boisterous, opinionated conversations. Everyone talked to me like I was an adult,” he says. “But really, I was a nebbishy kid.”

There’s nothing nebbishy about Loesser now or about the Lyric Theatre. Despite seating only 500, the theater boasts a growing annual attendance of more than 50,000 and a calendar of more than 300 events. Loesser calls it “a baby concert hall.” Built in 1926 as a silent movie house, The Lyric operated until the Depression. For the next 50 years, it was bought and sold by various interests. During downtown redevelopment in 1987, local citizens rescued the historically significant structure. In 1993, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Still, it was underused until Loesser took over in 1999.

Loesser was the right man in the right place. In his early 20s, he had run the west coast office of Frank Music Corp., the family publishing company before its sale to CBS. Launching his career in theater management and producing, Loesser formed his own company to manage the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles, winning four Los Angeles Dramalogue Awards. His producing credits include Album with Kevin Bacon at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City and Danny Elfman’s Boing Boing in San Francisco. In the early 1980s, he returned to the East Coast as executive director of several theaters, including The Civic Theatres of Central Florida in Orlando, where he produced 20 productions a year as well as two regional tours.

Loesser’s in-laws had lived in Stuart for more than 20 years, so he was familiar with the area, settling in Vero Beach with his wife and two children. “I gave the theater a vision, programmed it differently, and today it’s pretty substantial,” he says. True enough, thanks to a successful capital campaign raising $3 million, Loesser and the board of directors were able to buy the land in back of the theater and expand the stage to accommodate symphony orchestras and dance concerts.

The theater receives neither government funds nor subsidies from state or national organizations. Box office sales seldom cover production costs, so The Lyric relies on
private funds from corporations and individuals. Loesser admits being pleasantly surprised by how quickly those contributions came in.

That was exactly what Ethel Christen expected. Christen has been the president of The Lyric’s board of directors for 11 years. The Pittsburgh native and her husband moved to nearby Palm Bay in 1999. She discovered The Lyric via a French film series showing there. “The movies were wonderful, and I wondered why they weren’t better attended. Here was this lovely gem in our backyards that nobody knew about,” she recalls.

When she moved to South Florida, Christen planned to relax, but Loesser changed all that. “John had wonderful ideas and he certainly had the background, but he needed help within the community. Over lunch, he convinced me to join the board. It was the perfect marriage because we spoke the same language,” Christen
says. “The big thing was getting more community involvement.”

As one of the founders of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Christen knew what to do. While making basic annual memberships available at $35, they structured perks for those who could afford to pay more. “We created events like dinner on stage after a performance with the artist,” says Christen. “My favorite was Lily Tomlin, who stayed throughout the entire party, mingling with everyone.”

Ultimately, Christen believes, downtown Stuart and The Lyric Theatre have grown up together. “The Lyric has become downtown’s anchor. When there’s a show, the streets are bustling. It’s hard to get dinner reservations. When there are no shows, downtown’s pretty dead,” she says.

Kia Fontaine Hamill, assistant executive director to John Loesser, agrees. “On nights when we have two performances, 1,000 people come downtown,” says Hamill. “They eat in restaurants, hire baby sitters, buy gas, stop for a nightcap. What would happen downtown without The Lyric?”

When Loesser talks about his father, it’s easy to see how similar they are. “Dad loved words and music. He tied those together in an incredibly successful career. He was also a good businessman, starting the first music rights theater, Musical Theater International. Anyone wanting to do one of his songs or musicals had to pay for it. Taking Irving Berlin’s advice, he was one of the first composers coming out of Hollywood to start a publishing company, too,” says Loesser. “That’s how he launched many other composers’ careers.”

Frank Loesser’s parents, German emigrants who prized classical music, considered him a hack. Never mind that he would write more than 700 songs and win top awards. “Even though dad was keeping everybody alive financially, when he won the Pulitzer for How to Succeed in Business his mother only said, ‘That’s nice.’ It was always unrequited for dad,” Loesser says. He’s especially proud of his father’s ability to write quickly without much fuss.

“He was called ‘the most versatile composer in American theater’,” says Loesser. “A lot of people treat his work with reverence, but that’s not how he operated. When he was working in Hollywood, they suddenly needed a song for Fred MacMurray in The Forest Rangers and dad wrote Jingle Jangle Jingle like that.” Loesser snaps his fingers.

Finally, just as everyone (but his parents) appreciated Frank for his music, everyone appreciates John for The Lyric. Hamill, who’s worked for him six years, calls him “an incredible mentor.”

“He develops people. His irreverence, passion and creativity make him a visionary. He’s got some of the most remarkable stories and interactions with world-renowned
performers, but he never boasts,” says Hamill in a torrent of enthusiasm.

Pat Downing, a board member since 2006, appreciates Loesser’s work with schools and nonprofits. “John reaches out to the nonprofits and gets visiting artists
involved with the schools,” Downing says. “Last year, when Nestor Torres, the amazing Miami flutist, performed here, he spent an entire week working directly with kids.”

Christen visited one of the schools herself and saw Torres play drums with boys who’d given up free time on the basketball court.

Talking about The Discovery Series, a theater program for children, Christen adds, “It’s so great watching them go into the theater for the first time. When they come out they’re so alive, shouting ‘Awesome!’ Live theatre is a unique experience.”

This season, Loesser hopes to get tap dancer extraordinaire Savion Glover to the schools. Making that happen requires more underwriters. “It’s getting harder and harder to bring kids to the theater,” says Loesser. “They have tests, or buses aren’t available. Making live theater available is the right thing to do, particularly in
a small county. We have a leadership role in the community.”

Christen has watched Loesser grow and calls him a visionary. “He’s more like his father now. He feels a responsibility to the community to keep the quality top-notch. In other words, he’s been here long enough that he really cares. Walking down the street, people want to talk to him. He could be the mayor,” Christen says.

Married for 31 years and the father of two, Loesser knows something about love and commitment. He’s proud of his two children. Son Jordan 31, lives in Costa Rica, where he’s a real estate agent and surfer and plays guitar in bars. Gracie, 22, is a graduate student in museum studies at the University of Washington. She writes all the copy for The Lyric Magazine.

After 15 years on the job, Loesser is also father to a thriving theater. His immediate focus is on the renovation, “tending to the comfort and aesthetics of our audience.” His bigger vision — making the theater available to the kids in the community, discovering new talent, and making The Lyric exciting for everyone — takes optimism, an insatiable curiosity and perseverance, qualities he inherited from his father.

Notable Musicals
Guys and Dolls
How to Succeed in Business
Without Really Trying
The Most Happy Fella
Where’s Charley?

Notable Songs
Baby It’s Cold Outside
Heart and Soul (lyrics)
Two Sleepy People (lyrics)
On a Slow Boat to China
Spring Will Be a Little Late this Year
What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve
A Bushel and a Peck
Standing on the Corner
I Don’t Want to Walk Without You
Can’t Get Out of this Mood
Let’s Get Lost
I Wish I Didn’t Love You So
Inch Worm
Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition
The Ballad of Rodger Young
Never Will I Marry