Picketing in front of City Hall
At this moment, with my title written and nothing else, the former San Diego Symphony is preparing to announce the end of its silence. A month after disclosing a final plan to bankruptcy court, the organization will present its first concert in over two years, a ceremonial event to proclaim the reestablishment of a symphony in San Diego, with a new season set to start in fall 1998. Over two years after the symphony filed Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy, groups of people working under various titles have managed to change the bankruptcy to a Chapter 11 reorganization, save the concert hall and music library from the auction block, negotiate a labor agreement with the musicians’ union, install a new board of directors, raise almost $3 million from donors (thus giving the symphony access to nearly equal that amount in promised “challenge” donations), and wade through the quicksand of logistical and legal delays that throughout 1997 repeatedly revised intended dates for the resumption of classical music. At long last the music will resume. If and when this festivity happens, however, my applause and ovation will be private and from afar. I am a former symphony-spouse of this former symphony, and there will be no similar gala event, planned or otherwise, between my musician ex-husband and me to celebrate the end of our secluded silence.
Symphony rehearsal, c. 1995. The demand for big-name guest artists began to plague these summer concerts —Doc Severinsen, Benny Goodman, Rosemary Clooney, Roy Clark, and Ethel Merman.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
The relationship between city and symphony, between management and artists, the dissolving of that relationship, the disappearance of an entity called “orchestra,” which is simply a group of people and doesn’t exist when those people are gone…is it only to me that it’s all eerily similar to interpersonal relationships and divorce? Or perhaps an earlier decade of crisis for the San Diego Symphony was so snarled with how my marriage failed that I tend to personalize the difficulties that performing arts groups have with those closest to them: their cities, their supporters, their patrons, their audiences, their artists.
Most people will eagerly share stories of their lean years, usually savoring the details lovingly, with nostalgia. I’ll admit to recognizing myself in that category, even though many people have more outrageous or colorful or blighted one-room dirt-floored-shack-with-outhouse stories and descriptions than I do. For most, lean times are their young adult years, after leaving home. When young wolves are expelled from the pack, forced to venture out alone to start from scratch and establish their own groups, they don’t eat as well for a while as they did in the mature, stable pack they left.
Starting lean, then working from there — slowly, no overnight lavish prosperity — is a pattern in my family. None of us expected to move out and immediately live at the same (modest) middle-class standard our parents had gradually established, starting from their early years in a tiny stucco cottage loaned to them on a private-school campus where they taught for roughly $250 per month without medical or retirement benefits, until, a community college professor and elementary school teacher, they settled in the ranch house on Hartzel Hill. So, one at a time, my sisters and I finished our college educations, left the house on Hartzel Hill, and gravitated to the obvious, even traditional choice for many kids growing up and moving out in San Diego County in the ’60s and ’70s: North Park, Golden Hill, Normal Heights, Hillcrest, or City Heights. One sister married and lived with her husband in a one-room trailer — not a mobile home, a trailer — with a bed at one end, sofa at the other, and table in between the two, nearly touching the tiny sink and stove originally intended for vacation “camping.” Another sister rented what must’ve been a converted chicken coop in Normal Heights. It was a shack behind someone’s much larger white clapboard house on Adams Avenue, right across the street from a cardboard box factory (now a park). The thin-walled shack was divided into three rooms: kitchen big enough for one person to stand in and reach the stove, sink, and small counter, living room about the size of most tract housing’s smallest bedroom; and bedroom big enough to jam a double bed against two walls, leaving a two-foot-wide aisle around the other two sides. Our abodes were furnished with whatever patched-together or three-times-handed-down furniture we could accumulate, plus the requisite bricks-n-boards and wooden grocery crates (which fit record albums perfectly). One plywood chest of drawers started in the Salvation Army in the ’50s, then my parents used it in their master bedroom. After that it passed from child to child, until it was moved out with me. It changed color from natural wood to green to phony “antiqued” chestnut to glossy black. My sister made an area rug by collecting unfinished carpet samples a store was getting rid of and sewing them together like a patchwork quilt. It was fun to piece together the accruements of “adult life,” and what we managed to scavenge or renovate or build or refurbish, we treasured. Probably the reason our first combined yard sale on Adams Avenue in 1974 was such a flop was that if we didn’t want something any longer, who would? Few stopped to buy from our junk lined up on the parkway.
My own converted chicken coop was in Golden Hill, again a shack in someone’s back yard, an alley running close past the bedroom window. More likely it was an example of quickly assembled World War II military housing that the private sector had provided, seeing the opportunity for patriotism and profit combined. Without insulation, with walls that were dry-wall covered with phony wood paneling, of course without an air conditioner nor any kind of heater, the place was torturously hot in summer and nose-chilling cold even in a California winter. I could push nails into some interior walls with my thumb. The window sills were adorned with old termite trails, worn smooth into fossils. The kitchen floor undulated. The tile sinkshelf looked as though it had experienced its own private earthquake. Decorated with wooden crates and bricks-n-boards, an old sofa covered with an older bedspread, a desk made from a cast-off dining-table leaf stretched across what had once been a ’50s-era vanity table, posters on the walls, Ken Cinema schedule on the refrigerator, and plenty of houseplants. Into this hideaway, my new husband and I settled, after spending the first few months of our marriage in a North Park cottage that was above our means, costing $350 per month when his symphony salary was roughly $360 every other week and I was still a graduate student. We had one car between us, foraged in thrift shops for cool clothes, did laundry at the Laundromat on 30th Street right up the alley, bought groceries at the farmers’ market downtown between K and L Streets. For dining out, there were a few Mexican cafés on 30th Street, the Big Kitchen at the swerve on 30th, or we ventured to City Heights where Nicolosi’s and Little Italy offered “Italian Feasts” for $6. Splurging was a meal at the Prophet, a vegetarian restaurant on University Avenue in East San Diego.
But on weekend evenings, he dressed in white tie and black tails, and we went to the symphony concerts.
In childhood, when I made many rash promises as to what I would someday do — write novels, show dogs, run a chicken ranch — one of the first proclamations I remember is that I would marry a man who wore a black suit and white shirt with a black tie to work. My color scheme was only slightly off — the symphony musicians do wear black tie with tux coats for Sunday afternoon concerts. But for evening fare, the dress is black tails and white tie. Female musicians don ankle-length black dresses, somewhat plain, usually with long sleeves. Until the 20th Century, women were not allowed to play in most professional orchestras. In fact, a symphony in Switzerland just recently, in the late 1990s, voted to allow women among their ranks. Adding women in long Hack dresses, however, didn’t alter the traditional clothing of the male musician, nor has the advent of tenured contracts, recording residuals (royalties), summer music festivals, pops orchestra extravaganzas, or membership in the national musicians’ union changed the required wardrobe. And it is significant that, for musicians in a majority of professional orchestras, white tie and black tailcoats remain, unquestionably, the appropriate uniform. Evolving from 18th-century sportswear (the frock coat or cutaway), black tailcoats became the traditional working attire for 19th-century male servants. Butlers, valets, manservants, any male domestic wore black tails. In the 18th and early-19th Centuries, when any respectable family of wealth had as many servants as it could support, musicians hired for parties were also among the servant class. When one had a formal soiree, the musicians playing in the corner were as unnoticed by the guests as the servant with the tray of finger napkins, as unconsidered as the stereo at a contemporary society-page cocktail party. The music was enjoyed, danced to, or talked over without a thought given to the men producing the sound on stringed and woodwind instruments. When women joined orchestras, it would have been in keeping with tradition if they had been garbed in the body-length white aprons over black dresses worn by housemaids.
Subtle (and not so subtle) vestiges of the classical musician-as-servant still remain. A symphony concert is considered “highbrow” entertainment. Big Cadillac and Lexus automobiles pull up to the parking attendant, a bejeweled matron waits for her door to be opened before stepping out, the master hands his keys to the attendant, the car is whisked away from them while they join the others in glittering formal wear in a plush lobby, sipping champagne until the subtle flicker of the houselights; then the dull murmur of conversation shifts somewhat, the aristocracy enter the theater, settle into their seats, cough discreetly and applaud graciously — a steady, equitable volume of patting hands without catcalls — as the conductor (also in black tails) comes onstage. The patrons are out for an evening of pleasure and entertainment, while the musicians are, after all, at work.
Echoes of the musician-as-servant also remain in public and governmental, as well as the symphony’s own management’s, sensibilities — attitudes both general and individual, cognizant and careless. When a city loses its symphony, most of the media spin concerns the city’s image: how a major city loses credibility without its own symphony; how businesses seeking to settle in a particular location do consider conditions such as the cultural atmosphere in the city; how quality-of-life ratings include availability of classical music and the health of arts organizations like symphonies, operas, theater, and dance companies. The symphony itself, the very word or idea, is considered an entity, as though it were a historic building, a sewer system, attribute of the landscape, or trolley system, instead of being a collection of people who play instruments. Civic leaders and the general public as well only want to view “a symphony” as a commodity a city must have, like a convention center or ballpark or library. Rarely do editorialists, either professional or amateur, seem to recognize that without the group of musicians, there can be no symphony.
Musicians are people earning their living with a skill they have trained 10 or 20 years to actualize, and yet on this level the attitude toward them is also often curiously cavalier. When they unionize, when they collectively hold out for a salary higher than $20,000 for full-time work, the public’s commentary is frequently along the lines of “Well, if they don’t want to play music, they don’t have to” or “Isn’t it their hobby to play their instruments?" Or “ For gosh sakes, they’re just doing a two-hour concert three times a week!” Or “Why don’t they agree to play for less, if it will help keep the symphony in San Diego?” Certainly an attitude that suggests a musician’s servitude to a wealthy master.
Even the verb used to describe what they do with their instruments must have some significant background: They play. Like professional athletes who have taken games to the level of career, musicians are essentially taking for their livelihood what was — again, in the 17th and 18th and 19th Centuries — an art learned by young ladies to prove their gentility, to fill their leisure time with enjoyment, to entertain and woo suitors. This seems the opposite of the musician-as-servant, if the gentry themselves were making music. And the gender division complicates the picture: it was an essential part of education for the female children of gentry to play an instrument, usually harpsichord, piano, or harp, and to sing. But the servants who produced music on stringed, woodwind, or (later) brass instruments were all male. So my guess is that the word “play” used for creating music on an instrument is more related to music as a leisure-activity tradition, rather than to the poorly compensated servants who sat anonymously in a comer cranking out an endless tape-loop of waltz and minuet. And because musicians “play” their instruments, the public asks why they won’t provide music for less money and blames the greedy musicians for stopping the music.
When employees of a factory are laid off, we think of their hardship, their struggle to provide for their families; we don’t dwell on the clothes or shoes or computer equipment we won’t see in stores. But when classical musicians lose their jobs, those who care enough to respond will often think first of what the city won’t have, the smudge on our cultural reputation, and the musical performances we personally will miss out on, rarely giving thought to what will happen to the individual musician. It feels more like our loss than theirs. Perhaps that’s in part because when employees of a factory leave their jobs, the factory is still there. But when those men and women in black tails and long dresses get up from their chairs and leave the stage, there’s no thing called “orchestra," empty or hollow and waiting to be staffed, left behind. When the people leave, there is no symphony. Like a marriage. So we want to blame someone.
It takes a while to turn the pointing finger back toward our own chests. It was mostly a benign union, not based too much on passion nor security. There was passion. There was security, although we both joked that no one would look for security marrying a musician or a writer. The ratio between passion and friendship probably leaned too much toward friendship, especially in the beginning, because as a relationship matures, the adrenaline-thumping kind of passion that comes with a new infatuation leaks away but drains into the friendship side, strengthening it, deepening it.
But particulars best define a marriage, and certain details do stand out in memory. On at least two occasions — but probably more than that — he sat beside me for hours, holding my hand and reading Sports Illustrated while I vomited every 20 minutes. I’m prone to violent and profound motion sickness as well as dizziness and nausea not directly associated with a car, plane, or boat the first time. I’d just had some minor surgery in an outpatient clinic and afterward was kept on a narrow gurney in an ordinary doctor’s exam room because I had reacted badly to the anesthesia. Every time I rose to the surface of consciousness and embraced my hospital-issue U-shaped plastic bowl, I would groan, “Honey...” and he would answer mildly, “I’m right here.”
Another earlier time we were taking a bus from New York, where I was a graduate student, to Nashville to visit my sister. My first ride on a jet the previous August had been a nightmarish six hours of turbulence, vomiting in a middle seat in the center row of five in a jumbo 747 fuselage, nausea that lingered for my first four days in New York (cruelly exacerbated by an elevator ride up the World Trade Center). So taking a bus to Nashville was my avoidance of a return to that hell. My mistake was in not being certain the bus I chose was an express, which would’ve stayed on the interstate freeways, a mode of travel I’d learned to cope with. The local Greyhound stopped every hour or so, at gas stations and cafes, along state routes and rural U.S. highways, zigzagging its way south from New York. For 24 hours my husband of one year sat beside me with his magazines while I retched and puked every 15 to 20 minutes. The bus driver wanted to leave me at a diner somewhere in Virginia at 3:00 a.m., because he was afraid I would rupture my stomach and there’d be no hospital nearby.
Most of the time we traveled by car — actually a mini pickup with aluminum shell for dog crates in back. One trip east in December, a cold front extended like a blunt wedge down as far as New Mexico and the panhandle of Texas, the point of the front invading from the north just as we were coming through from the west. The truck’s heater a pathetic sham, we stopped at a Wal-Mart and bought blankets. Each of us was wrapped in our coat plus a blanket, but we still had to supplement everything with an unzipped sleeping bag spread sideways across our laps and chests, up to our chins, and tucked around our shoulders. The dogs were brought from their crates to ride with us in the front, four of us huddled together with coats and fur, blankets and sleeping bags. The one driving had towels wrapped around his or her hands. We sang Billy Joel songs together to distract ourselves from the chill.
A few years later, on an excursion to San Francisco, our first bona fide vacation that wasn’t combined with a trip to relatives or to a convention or audition, I decided to try a third mode of transportation, the train. From San Diego, driving takes much less time than a train, but we didn’t want to deal with parking in San Francisco and thought the train sounded like fun. At least I thought it sounded like fun. Affable as usual, he went along with my decision. I didn’t get sick, but to stave off nausea and dizziness, for equilibrium, I needed to look out the window unless I was asleep. This made reading to pass at least some of the 12 hours impossible. I curled sideways in my seat, facing the window, and he curled sideways behind me, tucked up against my back, holding his magazine out to one side, his mouth up close to my ear, he softly read aloud to me from Sports Illustrated.
Yes, it was one of his favorite reading materials, along with Baseball Digest, the newspaper, TV Guide, and science fiction, and he would read aloud from any one of them whenever I suggested, which was especially during baths. I never requested the sci-fi as my bathtub entertainment, but sometimes he read from a single “adult” novel he’d carried around with him since college, parodying the bad writing and giving all the characters accents, similar to the way he would sing Beatles lyrics in operatic style to entertain me on long car trips, each “yeah” and “woooo” in “She Loves You” delivered in a full-throated, classical baritone.
His favorite reading material does suggest some of his favorite television shows. Unlike the common stereotyped depiction of “egghead” classical musicians, he enjoyed television and seldom switched to PBS. The TV was almost always on to sports or sports news while he practiced endless exercises, scales, and études meant to strengthen the muscles used to play his instrument. For general watching, he preferred baseball and football games and Star Trek, but he also singled out St. Elsewhere, Cheers, and reruns of Kung Fu. His favorite movies were the Star Wars series, Indiana Jones series, the Robocop and Terminator series, but he wept with me during a rented video of The Yearling.
But in his own life, he didn’t crave adventure, special effects, nor drama. All he wanted was to earn his living doing what he’d been training for since elementary school, follow his fa write sports — chiefly baseball with the Padres and football with the Chargers — and to share it with a devoted best friend, preferably one he could be married to at the same time. He made no opposition to the other interests dragged into the relationship by his partner, which included dogs instead of children. Besides, baseball, which became one of his passions, had been something he neither liked nor understood when we met. Within two years, he was one of those walking baseball-statistic encyclopedias, fervently analyzing other teams and what the always-lowly Padres should or could do to beat the odds. Then came 1984.
George Orwell’s “futuristic” year was a prosperous one for us, for me, for the Padres, and for the San Diego Symphony. I started the year with a new puppy, the one that would go on to become my first obedience trial champion, dam of champions, and grand-dam of more champions. I found her name in a Gershwin tune the symphony played at a rare winter pops concert: Strike Up the Band. That same year my first novel, while still m manuscript, won the prestigious national PEN/Nelson Algren Award for fiction. I flew to New York and was courted by agents and editors. No longer living in the converted chicken coop on an alley in Golden Hill, we had moved “up” to a 1.5-bedroom pre-war or war-era cottage in Normal Heights with its own converted chicken coop (complete with struggling musician inhabitant) in the back yard. The symphony also moved up: leaving its status as tenant in the Civic Theatre by acquiring a full downtown city block that included the grand and historic Fox Theatre. And the San Diego Padres had the best 1984 of all of us, their first batting-title holder, their first division title, their first National league pennant. During the playoffs and World Series, we could hear the clamor of the crowd in Jack Murphy Stadium from our Normal Heights front yard. In a seesawing game six of the playoffs, when the Cubs were ahead, a musician friend from Chicago called for a sportsmanlike post tournament handshake, consoling us with his congratulations on a fine season and his assertion that it had been an exciting series. When Steve Garvey hit his celebrated home run to win game six, doors up and down the block were flung open and people burst into their yards to join the reverberation coming from Mission Valley. The friend did not call back.
But did a mysterious hex caused by Orwell’s dire predictions attach itself to many successes garnered in 1984? In the next ten years two players from the ’84 champion Padres were dead, bankruptcies and embezzlements plagued others, and the pennant hero retreated from the public eye in personal disgrace. Meanwhile, after falling $2 million short in renovation fundraising, the breathtakingly restored Fox Theatre (renamed Copley Symphony Hall) and the new Symphony Towers constructed over and around the former vaudeville-and-movie theater, were tilting dangerously close to falling into creditors’ hands, and the project began to gather a large measure of blame for the impending collapse of the symphony. My award-winning manuscript, abandoned by the courting agents and editors when they discovered it to be “not commercially viable,” searched fora publisher for eight years before being “discovered” by an independent press. In June 1985, while the Padres struggled in vain to repeat a division title, and while musicians sat in the stadium watching a game before their annual post-game symphony concert, San Diego County’s most damaging wildfire to date devastated our Normal Heights neighborhood. Our house was not involved, but before leaving for the baseball game, as the flame-whipped wind blew ash down our block, we loaded our truck with manuscripts and the dogs and moved them to a friend’s place. Seated in the upper deck of Jack Murphy Stadium, along the right field side, we stood and turned away from the field and saw the blackened hillside rising up from Mission Valley and the houses along the rim with frantic arms of flame reaching from windows and embracing over roofs.
Not too long before 1984’s advantageous (and, I believe, wise-in-principle) real estate move by the San Diego Symphony, trouble had already been brewing. In 1981, what seemed at the time the welcome gift of an idyllic three-month vacation with my new husband before I would travel 3000 miles to pursue graduate study, was actually the first time symphony management canceled a portion of a season and left the musicians to get by on unemployment and whatever freelance jobs they were lucky enough to find. So “vacation” was to splurge on potato chips and watermelon (then cut the hard green layer off the outside and use the white rinds instead of meat in stir-fry); to take our new kittens on leashes down the block to the canyon that dissects Golden Hill and South Park near 32nd Street; to walk up to the North Park business district, get an “energy bar” from the natural foods grocery, and browse in Controversial Bookstore or Blue Lagoon Pets; and to listen to the Padres on radio until a player strike put a hole in the middle of the season.
The musicians in the San Diego Symphony were not on strike, but, like the athletes, it was not their fate that was decried but the traditional summer entertainment the public was living without. The symphony’s summer season had always been a success with the public. Before establishing a permanent summer site on Hospitality Point, the summer orchestra toured the county, playing at Southwestern College, Aztec Bowl, a park in Escondido, and other similar sites. Families would spread blankets on football fields or park grass, bring portable barbecues and Frisbees, kids would be running (and tripping) through everyone else’s picnic, and the symphony would entertain with a light hire of classical music, popular tunes, big band arrangements, Sousa marches, and big finale fireworks blockbusters like music from Star Wars. Always popularly supported with large audiences, the summer pops concerts were supposed to help financially sustain the symphony’s more formal winter season. But similar to baseball owners’ assertions, the demand for big-name guest artists began to plague these summer concerts, as the fees for guest artists were outstripping any profit the symphony could hope to collect from “family rate” entertainment. Appearing with the summer pops symphony were names like Doc Severinsen, Benny Goodman, Rosemary Clooney, Roy Clark, and Ethel Merman.
Classical instrumentalists everywhere have chaffed under their fate to perform pops in the summer. This would be similar to a publisher agreeing to publish a serious literary novel only if the author also produced a few pulp romances to offset the cost of the novel that wouldn’t pay for itself. Perhaps that’s why that first canceled season in the summer of 1981 did not bring about as much distress to the musicians of the San Diego Symphony as forthcoming cancellations would. Everyone tightened belts and looked forward to a new fall season of substantial, worthwhile music performed in concert halls without the difficulties of outdoor weather conditions affecting delicate wooden stringed instruments, fireworks raining ash onto the orchestra, children running and laughing during the performance, audiences clapping along but unable to maintain a steady beat, the smoke of wayward barbecues drifting into performers’ eyes, the acoustically grotesque necessity for amplification when playing in stadiums, and the awful white dinner coats worn by male musicians instead of tails. One musician celebrated the end of a summer season by setting fire to his white coat while others cheered.
Whiners. Crybabies. Spoiled, snobby, elitist stuffed shirts. The musicians knew this is what the public would (and did) say of them if or when for any reason word of their discontent and disdain for the pops season became public. Accepting the unfortunate necessity, no musician refused to play pops concerts, but the conditions for summer rehearsals and performances often became sticking points in contract negotiations, as musicians wanted the outdoor orchestra stages to be covered to protect them from ash, wanted heaters in the backstage areas for chilly summer nights by the harbor, wanted ear protection for those musicians seated too close to the speaker system, wanted assurances that outdoor daytime rehearsals would not be held when temperatures rose above 90 — this to protect sensitive instruments, not sensitive musicians. For some musicians, their instrument is an investment as substantial as a house, and some own instruments in lieu of real estate.
A precursor to major trouble, the canceled summer season of 1981 was either the first visible symptom or the beginning of the symphony’s slow descent into what we called “the crisis.” While I was in New York in graduate school, symphony management had trouble meeting the payroll in spring 1982. Paychecks came late, paychecks came truncated, paychecks were skipped and promised later. A contract was being negotiated between musicians and management. Was the payroll problem during negotiations a coincidence? By the time I finished school in summer 1983 and we moved to Normal Heights, a new contract was in place and management had found a (temporarily) smoother road for symphony operations. Purchase of the Fox Theatre and an agreement with the Port District to establish a permanent summer site for the Symphony Pops concerts on Hospitality Point were going to usher forth a new era. The new summer site improved conditions for musicians and audiences alike, creating a cabaret atmosphere with tables and food-and-beverage service, while continuing to provide family picnic areas outside the table-service area as well as bleacher seating and family-rate packages. The fireworks were detonated from the tip of the point — far enough from the now-covered orchestra shell so that burning hair or spontaneous combustion of wooden instruments was no longer an issue.
Then there was the Fox Theatre. To this same place, some time in the late ’60s, my family had come on one of our only outings to a sit-down movie (ordinarily my parents, with five kids in the back of a station wagon, went to the drive-in theater). The Fox Theatre is where I sat agog and watched Mary Poppins and thought Dick Van Dyke was the handsomest man in the world.This was also around the same age I vowed to marry a man who wore a black suit and white shirt to work. So my husband dressed in black tails and went to work at the new symphony hall. Still wrapped, nearly buried, in scaffolding and construction fencing, the interior had been returned to its grand days as a velvet-draped, gold-adorned vaudeville theater, but with newly engineered acoustics.
Once a week after concerts we would join five to eight other musicians and spouses (some were spouse-musicians) and go out to Piret’s or La Gran Tapa, trooping in with instrument cases and formal wear but being largely ignored by other late diners, many of whom were likely symphony patrons out for a late dinner after the concert themselves. Rarely if ever did anyone come to the musicians’ table to offer congratulations on a concert well played. Once again, relegated to servant status: the several tables jammed together to accommodate the musicians may as well have been in the kitchen. Our budget allowed my husband and me to share an appetizer, and one glass of wine was enough for the two of us since I don’t care for it and was content with water. Sometimes the after-concert event would be a party at one musician’s house where the music might be jazz, the food a potluck, the conversation anything from sports to politics to children’s braces to dogs (ours) to the debate over whether the new CD technology would be better or worse for classical recordings. And the dress was, as always, formal.
My husband’s tails were purchased secondhand when a tux-rental company cleaned out its closet to make room for new styles (likely, at the time, needing room for all those powder blue tuxedos kids would be wearing to proms in the 70s). By the time I met him, the worn-out lining in his tails coat was hanging loose in ribbons. Not much of a seamstress, I still dutifully sat one evening and pieced the lining back together by hand, so at least it wouldn’t flutter from the bottom of his tails like streamers. A new tails coat might’ve cost most of his biweekly paycheck.
In January 1985, my third dog, Bizzy, was born into my hands and took her first breath, a literal gasp, patently relishing her first seconds of life. A week later I began teaching as an adjunct (nontenured, hourly) lecturer in the San Diego Community College District. My monthly pay was six to seven hundred dollars for three classes. My husband also played in the San Diego Opera Orchestra, four to six operas per year, each opera production netting seven to eight hundred dollars in salary. The reason our budget didn’t allow for necessities like new tailcoats or pleasures like each of us ordering an appetizer after a concert was that we were saving for a down payment on a house. A year after the symphony’s real estate purchase, renovation, and move-in was completed — but still during the construction of Symphony Towers — we bought our two-bedroom house in the Oak Park section of East San Diego.
It was spring of 1986, just about time for another multi-year contract between musicians and management to be pounded out for the start of the 1986-87 symphony season. In fact, the previous contract may have already expired, with the musicians agreeing to continue working under the old contract while a new one was negotiated. Interesting that the failure to meet the biweekly payroll (and management’s heartfelt anxiety expressed over this repellent necessity) kept popping up in contract-negotiation years — as it would again in the ’90s. In 1986, the payroll failure was announced with an “emergency fund drive.” The symphony had to raise several million in donations in three or four weeks or else “the future of the 70-year-old musical institution was in jeopardy” said the typical release horn management to the media. The fund drive was immediately center stage on the local classical radio station (which, itself, now no longer exists). Musicians and the music director manned phones and gave interviews.
This emergency fund drive was launched after we’d found and bid on our new house and while we were in the process of applying for a mortgage. The cheerful loan officer had indeed heard the news of the symphony’s financial distress, but apparently current news about an employer’s problems doesn’t sway the mortgage process: only our credit report, record of tax filings, and current status of employment seemed of interest to her. She did, however, inquire, “Can’t you just transfer to Los Angeles or something?” causing us to exchange tired, weak smiles that stood in for outright exasperated sighs. As though “symphony” were a corporation with branch offices in every major city. At least she didn’t say, “It’s nice you can be paid to do your hobby. Do you have another job as well?” There would be more, and worse, ignorant or just plain mean-spirited comments from the citizenry of San Diego County to come.
The emergency fund drive ended — I don’t think the goal was met — escrow closed without a hitch and we moved in, the spring season drew to a close and summer pops approached. But no announcement of the winter ’86-’87 season, including guest artists, programs, and special packages, was made by management. Negotiations dragged on. My husband, responding to the general cynicism and pessimism beginning to heat up among the musicians. applied to graduate school at San Diego State. Certainly already being well beyond the caliber of musician SDSU would hope to have graduate from its program, he only needed course credits to finish a master’s degree — started in Boston and abandoned when he’d become a professional — in order to be qualified to teach. Not conduct a school band, not lecture on music theory, but just teach his instrument to student music majors.
It was a long, hot, tense summer. The deadline for adjunct professors to request summer school classes had passed before the financial crisis hit, so my income was reduced to collecting on the unemployment insurance I’d contributed during the academic year. I wrote in the mornings, trained my dogs in the afternoons, worked in my new back yard in the evenings while listening on the radio to the Padres floundering, just two years after their championship season. At the summer concerts at Hospitality Point, we sometimes arrived early with other musicians, ate sandwiches on the grass behind the stage, then lay on our backs, still listening to Jerry Coleman’s tinny voice describing another baseball game from a transistor radio my husband carried in his pocket. Seldom did anyone bring up the contract negotiations nor management’s silence regarding the fall season. Some of the musicians would call out the makes and models of the jets and planes that had just taken off from Lindbergh Field and throttled past our field of vision overhead. Toward the end of the concert, I would wander back behind the stage by myself, once again lie flat on the grass, and watch the fireworks that were fired off from the tip of the point — so perfectly, amazingly timed with the music, even though each rocket had to be launched seconds or minutes before it splashed in the sky.
The rank-and-file — those musicians not on the negotiating committee — were not privy to what went on during negotiations. The negotiating committee had been advised by the union lawyer not to discuss the details of the negotiation process with the entire membership. So as far as who said what to whom and the tenor of discussions — raised voices or terse retorts, methods of intimidation and/or passive-aggressive concessions, heated disagreements or jovial backslapping, shared jokes or exchanged pleasantries or stern game-faces — the majority of musicians hadn’t a clue what was going on in the fruitless sessions. The musicians were occasionally called to meet so the committee could report on the status of the negotiations or if the committee had deemed it was time to bring an offer to the membership fora vote. Meetings like this occurred whether or not the committee itself was satisfied with the offer. It was necessary to update the anxious membership on the progress (or lack thereof) in the negotiation, to show the membership the “best and final” offer currently under discussion or one that had ended talks for the time being. It’s likely that assembling, then coming back to the table with repeated, united solidarity was a negotiation tactic on the musicians’ part.
I was even one more step removed from precious information. Families were not allowed in union meetings; it was members-only. I don’t know if this is the case in the autoworkers’ or farmworkers’ or restaurant workers’ unions, but it was an enforced rule in the musicians’ union. This did not mean the musicians could not go home and recount the current contract offer to family members. Thus, thirdhand, I do know an essence of these negotiations that the media found too insignificant to report — that, like most contracts, salary was not the only issue and that management could attempt to bury the entire process in an avalanche of minute, nit-picking details. In one contract offer, in changing even the smallest nuances of wording, management took the old contract’s provision that “every musician shall be provided a suitable locker” and removed the word “suitable.” Every indication pointed to management having no intention of bringing these negotiations to a contract, no intention of having an ’86-’87 symphony season at all.
This is not to say that salary was not a major issue. But when it comes to salary and compensation, again the public only hears that the musicians are turning down a base salary and that they want a higher minimum and they want a longer season. The general public, whether symphony patrons or not, will only notice the number in that minimum wage, for example $700 a week, and exclaim, “That’s plenty for what amounts to part-time work or a hobby!” What these people don’t realize is that it’s only $700 a week for the number of weeks in a season. If the season is 30 weeks, it’s a yearly salary of $21,000, for work that’s not part-time at all when one considers the three or four concerts per week (five in the summer), three or four rehearsals per week, children’s concerts, Christmas concerts, plus the considerable amount of practicing the musicians must do on their own. Twenty-one thousand dollars — for a position that may have taken the musician two decades to be proficient enough to win over dozens of other auditioners. To this the average citizen replies, “Well, if they don’t like the pay, they don’t have to be musicians.” But when, in those two decades, did they have time to prepare for a more lucrative career? Can they become doctors, advertising executives, dentists, professors, engineers, contractors, bankers, or stockbrokers in their spare time?
They chose to be musicians; they knew they likely chose to struggle financially; they assumed it meant that their diligent work to achieve a quality musical ensemble and management’s vigorous efforts to establish a financial foundation, even an endowment, would at least enable them to live adequately, to not be asked or required to carry on their musical career as a hobby while holding down another job. They knew this career choice meant playing repetitious light popular music outdoors with fireworks in the summer and that to enhance their income they might also be playing in other ensembles — ballet or opera orchestras, pit ensembles for musicals, chamber and festival orchestras — and that they might have to squeeze teaching private students into their schedules. But they didn’t volunteer to work not only for next to nothing, but for so little regard as well.
In this morning’s letters to the editor, a San Diego County citizen was complaining about the off-repeated lament that the county needs more affordable housing. This citizen said he doesn’t want “affordable housing” (which he has equated with drugs, gangs, and murder) in his neighborhood. In fact, he pressed on, since “hardworking” people have established “nice” neighborhoods and increased their size and number throughout Southern California, he doesn’t see why this “affordable housing” should be anywhere in the county. Yes, he admits, San Diego County is expensive to live in, but, he offers, he’s worked hard to afford to live here, and if people can’t afford to live here, they should move away to someplace they can afford. I guess that includes waitresses who serve him coffee, clerks who ring up his purchases, gardeners who keep his parks lovely, housekeepers and janitors who keep his hospitals and theaters clean, bank tellers who deposit his money, elementary school teachers who help his grandchildren learn to read, delivery drivers who bring his goods to convenient stores, video store employees who keep the movies he rents on the shelves in alphabetical order, and musicians... who he don’t need for nuthin’.
But it’s not really my place (nor my intent) to argue the pros and cons of letting the arts live or die in a free-market system that places value on products according to demand; nor why a symphony can or cannot be supported in San Diego; nor popular music versus classical; nor whether or not an orchestra should partially be supported by government, or would Mozart have ever composed much if he hadn’t been supported by his government.... My interest is the people I used to know, the men and women who sat onstage with reeds in their mouths or bows of horsehair in their hands, clutching chin rests between jaws and collarbones, or emptying spit out of valves, doing what they trained since childhood to do, supporting their families doing it. And how a history of contention with management can (and did) affect life offstage.
In 1968 a wage dispute with the musicians of the San Diego Symphony brought about a canceled season of concerts. The musicians were demanding more than their $1500 annual salary. In 1974, musicians again went on strike, then accepted a yearly salary of $4200. Salaries and length of the season grew mightily in the following decade, to approximately $22,000 to $30,000 annual salary, not counting certain highly paid principal players, for a 28- to 36-week season. But then in 1986 — months after management had already let pass the usual spring announcement of the ’86-’87 winter concert dates — stalled contract talks with the musicians were blamed for the cancellation of another entire symphony season. The musicians never called for a strike, never even took a strike-authorization vote. They were locked out. With over $2 million in debt, the symphony management had known all along it could not afford to keep the symphony active in 1986-87. The contract talks with a demonized union, feigned and prolonged since spring, through the summer, and into the early fall, were a good excuse and a good way to deflect the public’s focus from management’s debt to the musicians themselves.
The musicians, a rather motley crew except when onstage playing a complex Mahler or Stravinsky, mobilized. There was the phone tree (in pre-email days) to get information out to the membership quickly. There was an emergency fund established by the union, from which members could take no-interest emergency loans. There was the picketing committee, which prepared (and repaired) the signs, set up picketing teams, and scheduled the demonstrations. There was the musicians-helping-musicians list where individuals listed their skills for service or trade to other musicians, from hair cutting to sewing to lawn mowing to handyman home repair to baby-sitting to assistance in caretaking of elderly parents. Official word from the union that there was no strike enabled musicians to file unemployment claims. The negotiating committee took on the task of handling (attempting to manage) media reports of the ongoing situation. Press conferences and rallies followed some of the few remaining contract talks in the fall, with musicians dressed in hill formal wear on the steps of Symphony Hall. Members of visiting ensembles like the Philadelphia Orchestra, booked to use the empty concert hall, joined the San Diego musicians in picketing the theater before their own concerts.
Many musicians were married to non musician spouses who held at least comparable but often better-paying jobs. These musicians were no less involved in the mobilization and solidarity efforts, their hard-won careers no less threatened, their identities and credibility no less shattered. For those musicians married to other musicians or, in our case, married to dancers or singers or artists or writers, financial concerns compounded the impact of realizing that what they’d worked their entire lives to become could evaporate with little notice. And for some, no amount of advance warning could be enough to prepare them for any kind of viable alternate employment. In situations like this in a business or corporate world, when the media reports the personal story of a “downsized” manager, public sympathy rushes toward the suddenly obsolete former executive so unfairly robbed of his livelihood and his future. Whether it was because the musicians were in a union in a union-unfriendly town, or because management had successfully deflected blame for the lockout onto the musicians’ refusal to agree to a contract that called for a shorter season with a smaller weekly mini-mum — successfully drawing the public eye away from their own budget deficiencies and huge debts — there was little public sympathy for the musicians. One person even said to me, “Well, they don’t really provide a necessary service. They’re getting paid enough for what they do.”
It was natural, I guess, that the public lament would not be focused on the plight of the locked-out musicians but would instead be over the lost ensemble, over the absence of a symphony orchestra in a major city, over the uncultured boorish image the crisis bestowed on San Diego. The (seemingly) final, bigger crisis in 1996 was no different. “Are we a nation of philistines incapable of appreciating the finer things?” asked an editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune during a 1995 emergency fund drive by the again financially stricken San Diego Symphony. It’s even more interesting to note the subtle spin given the musicians in reports on details of the situation: The sad decision to file for bankruptcy, the newspaper reported, was forced on the board of directors after two major problems occurred; the article went on to recount that one of the two “problems” was the musicians’ “refusal to take a pay cut.” Then there was the 1995 resignation of the symphony’s executive director, who put himself in a victim role, asserting that making the biweekly payroll — that is, paying the musicians’ salaries for their work — was killing him. “Because of it,” he claimed, “I’m a sick man.” Was any thought given to the stress experienced by musicians whose biweekly paychecks were constantly in doubt, who time and again agreed to wait longer for their checks, agreed to take portions of what was due them? No, the focus was on what a stress it was for someone to have to pay them.
My monthly salary for teaching three courses at Mesa College was just about the same as our monthly mortgage bill. His unemployment covered utilities, gas, and grocery necessities. We did not use credit cards nor tap into the union’s emergency fund; instead we notched our belts still tighter. Every other week, the phone tree reported where we could go to pick up a box of government surplus food. I remember the distribution point to be somewhere like a church, where boxes of surplus food were stacked on folding tables, outside along a walkway. There was always a five-pound block of American cheese, a five-pound bag of flour, a five-pound bag of white rice, a pound of real butter, a loaf of white bread, a pound of pasta, a dozen eggs, and a half-gallon jar of Thousand Island salad dressing. Then each time there were miscellaneous items that must have achieved temporary “surplus” status: three kiwis per family, one bag of chocolate cookie mix, a head of lettuce, a box of Jell-O or instant pudding. Unbelievable as it may seem, it’s difficult to live on these supplies. I guess I could’ve baked a cake every day. We had many more cheese sandwiches with salad dressing than I care to remember; the remainder of the cheese helped the rice to make casseroles or was used as dog-training rewards. The accumulating butter became my donation to family Christmas cookie baking. Of course, my parents’ continually bountiful three-quarter acre was another source of “surplus” food: the last of the summer eggplant, green pepper, and squash, and the winter fruit, tangerines and oranges.
As a means of sustaining morale through reducing isolation, the symphony musicians held potlucks twice a month at the union hall. Musicians’ Local 325 is located in a rather over-looked part of San Diego, on Morena Boulevard, across the freeway from Mission Bay, tucked below Clairemont Mesa, a strip of commercial road housing tire and body shops. Behind the union hall was a lumpy, badly paved parking lot butting up against a straggly hillside. The hall was equipped with folding tables and chairs, just about as homey and comfortable as the waiting room at the unemployment office. Here, twice a month, we brought home-cooked creations we’d made from the government surplus food. We weren’t so destitute that we couldn’t’ve splurged on something more elegant to share at a potluck, but it became a game to see who could come up with what from the government food. (Casseroles could (and did) consist of just about anything, from the requisite rice and pasta to oatmeal and cornflakes — and of course, lots of cheese and eggs. Salad dressing made a funky topping for meat loaf. Jell-O and pudding undulated and shimmied on the unsteady folding tables, loaded with kiwis and apples.
But after the exclamations and laughter over the prepared dishes, we had to sit down across the table from each other and think of something to say. Something besides: Had anyone won an audition for another symphony? Whether or not the music director was locked out as well, or was his paycheck still issued on time. When was the next bargaining session scheduled? Were key principal players being paid under the table to encourage them to not audition elsewhere? Had someone really taken money from the emergency fund to buy a new television? Where was that lawyer who was supposed to be helping handle negotiations? What’s going on? What’s really going on?
It was similar, maybe worse, on the picket line. Since families were invited to join the picket lines, on at least one occasion I brought the dogs downtown to picket with little signs that hung over their backs, There were signs comparing the executive director’s salary with the base musician salary, signs decrying refurnished offices and board-of-directors’ meeting mom, signs saying “Honk if you love music.” There were even special signs made for patrons to carry, but I never saw anyone who wasn’t either a musician or immediate family in the picket line. To avoid the disconcerting topics of conversation, we waved to union comrades in work trucks and police cars sitting at the traffic light on B Street and gave cheerful greetings to pedestrians, even the slickly dressed personnel entering the theater building. Payroll not being as difficult to make with musicians locked out, many on the support staff were still working, but the symphony’s clerical and management employees never passed through the picket line — they used an entrance from the parking structure on the other side of the building — so people entering the building through the picketers could be anything from those who staffed the ticket windows (now selling tickets to Barry Manilow or the Philadelphia Orchestra) to employees of another business altogether. Symphony Towers had begun to rent out other suites in the theater building.
We had vague notions of when important meetings were to take place (and, of course, specific knowledge of increasingly rare talks with the musicians’ negotiation committee), so the picket lines were usually organized to be present at such times, as well as during performances in the concert hall, which management was renting out. Difficult to not be suspicious because we understood how far in advance any act — whether symphony orchestra or solo singer — books venues for touring shows. How long ago had management been making arrangements for these uses of Symphony Hall? How long ago had they known the musicians would be out of work for a year — assuming or hoping the union would call a strike, but resorting to a lockout as plan B? And at lunchtime when catering trucks parked in the loading zones on B or Seventh streets (usually wherever the picket line wasn’t) and large deli trays were swiftly whisked into the building, we wondered: was this how management had cut back on operating expenses?
And what about the membership — why were certain people never present for picketing, for potlucks, even for union meetings? Was the musician who recently married the music director getting her paycheck? Had she come to any meetings, and would she tell her husband what the negotiating committee or union lawyer was planning? Whose side was the music director on; was he in the union; was he still being paid, despite his $100,000 salary reported to be among management’s debts?
Still, it was easier to face those questions among the continually dwindling group at the “morale-boosting” potlucks or the dogged 10 or 15 picketers than it was to face them alone together at home. After the end of the baseball season in September, we’d stopped our subscription to the paper — part of the belt tightening — but anytime the phone tree called with news of an article or editorial, we wasted no time in driving to 7-Eleven for a final edition, all the while knowing there would be no information given to a reporter that would tell us anything new, anything hopeful or at least helpful. And there would be no answer to the “what’re we going to do?" that I asked too many times between his sessions of practicing for auditions that hadn’t been announced in superior cities that supported their symphonies, or as he sat on the sofa with a musicology textbook from one of his graduate classes, the irrelevant words blurring on the page before he tossed the book aside and picked up the last newspaper.
“How can they do this?”
“They obviously can. They did it.”
“But what’ll we do?”
“I don’t know. Stop asking that. Just wait and see.”
“But you can’t do anything else.”
“I know, I’m worthless.”
“I don’t mean that, but it’s not fair. After your whole life practicing and taking lessons and going to school, you’ll end up pumping gas or selling sodas to kids after school at 7-Eleven.”
“And getting shot.”
Variations on a theme, the conversation played itself out almost every day, until he begged me to stop asking.
Feverishly, I looked for outlets to release the anxiety in other ways. In our small back yard, I prepared plots of ground and planted as many winter vegetables as I could: cabbage, brussels sprouts, onions, and lettuce. I sent my résumé to every other college English department in the county seeking additional adjunct courses. I conditioned prospective show dogs for colleagues and gave private training lessons. Some of these people. I’m sure, were paying me not because they needed these services but because they knew about the symphony.
I had always been the one who made sure bilk were paid and balanced the checkbook, but the lockout intensified my supervision of our budget. In fact, intensified my supervision of many unrelated daily activities: when and what we ate, how much gas to put in the car, when he should practice his instrument, when we could make a long-distance call, how often should the laundry be done or the toilet flushed (this was, after all, during some drought years!). And I oversaw his exercise routine: which exercises he did, when he did them, how many repetitions — leg extensions, biceps curls, sit-ups, push-ups, abdominal crunches. These were things I could control.
“How are you doing?” I would call from another room or from the screen door with feet too dirty to come inside.
“Don’t you feel good about doing them?”
“No, I’m sick to my stomach.”
No hypocrisy in my exaggerated behavior: besides my teaching, gardening, conserving, and decreeing, at the same time I remained dedicated and disciplined when it came to keeping my butt in a chair in front of my typewriter and maintaining the dogs training schedules. Something had to feel like it was continuing, progressing, plugging away toward a result, a goal, a next step, a dividend. Likewise, I acted as “manager” of my husband’s graduate-school career: reminding him to do his reading, asking when his next deadlines were, asking him to describe his term-paper project, reciting it back to him in the form of a question and structure for a paper, inquiring if he needed to go to the library, going to the library with him, reminding him to go work on his rough draft, setting up the portable typewriter on the coffee table so he could pick at it during a football game or sports news or between practice sessions, then finally typing the final paper for him on the electronic machine — adding footnotes and correct documentation. I can make it sound like a dutiful, supportive wife. But all of these words — “reminding” and “asking” and “inquiring” — could be replaced with “hounding."
“There’s plenty of time,” he would say. “I’ll get it done.”
“When I decide to do it.”
“Don’t you just want to get it done and over with?”
“It doesn’t need to be done yet.”
“Well, then don’t come to me to type the damn thing the night before it’s due."
More tyrannical supervisor than supportive life-partner, I made sure I knew the dead-lines for scheduling his graduate recital, for lining up a faculty committee, for reserving the hall, for hiring an accompanist; I knew the requirements for the degree, the substitutions he could make based on his previous experience in Boston, the deadline for applying for graduation. While the future of the San Diego Symphony — my husband’s profession, his pension and medical benefits, a portion of our future — was gyrating so wildly out of control, and while my writing career seemed to be endlessly treading in deep water while the lifeguards called out, “It’s not commercially viable,” his graduate degree was something I could influence and direct. Consequently, he was treated more like my ward than my partner.
Both of us feeling utterly helpless, we reacted in opposite directions. My method for satisfying my need to be in control tipped our relationship into a dominant / subordinate mode. But in addition, perhaps abdication of control is a condition some professional musicians have become accustomed to: He’d spent nearly ten years being a dependent of a management that held all the power, instead of seeing himself as being the very reason there was a management in the first place. Many musicians have adopted the stance of hat-in-hand gratefulness that management provides them a symphony to make music in. This is, of course, exactly what management wants. Rather than seeing themselves as a support staff for the artists who produce the performances, management seems to view itself as the creator and the musicians as some raw material that management is compelled to use. There are certain publishers who prefer to print and market only works by deceased writers to avoid having to deal with questions, suggestions, and ideas from an author. Likewise I’m sure there are symphony managements who would favor putting on concerts with androids playing the music instead of real human musicians. I don’t know how I could’ve or should’ve helped my husband toward a more assured, independent view of himself as a musician, but I should not have treated him in exactly the same style of domineering control that symphony management had always taken.
I suppose it’s not such a psychological stretch to see that what I wanted, besides to feel in control again, was an authority figure of my own, someone to say Just follow me, I'll take care of you. And my peremptory veneer did occasionally crack. The August before the lockout (when we should’ve seen it coming and didn't) I had Bizzy, my youngest dog, bred. She whelped two puppies in October, and I had both presold before they were ready to wean. The litter was not intended as a money-making arrangement. The $300 per pup just about offset the stud fee and vet bills. Breeding a prospective show bitch usually accomplishes not only “proving" her as a brood bitch but deepens her chest, springs her ribs, and — after she finishes weaning, then sheds her depleted coat — she’ll usually come into a beautiful “bloom” and be ready for the showring. After the pups were established in their new homes, as Bizzy began to come into the promised post-motherhood “bloom” and was winning best-of-breed at every practice match we entered, and as the lockout dragged from fall ’86 into winter ’87 with no contract talks scheduled and my husband’s unemployment benefits dwindling, I asked him, “Do you think we should sell Bizzy?”
“Sell Bizzy? Why would you ask that?”
“Well, she could be desirable, or, I don’t know, valuable. She’s a quality bitch, ready for the breed ring, flashy markings, showy pedigree....”
“She’s ours,” he stated. “I can’t believe you would say something like that.”
“I was just trying to figure out if there was something else we could do...."
“We’re not selling our family.”
Odd, even profane I realize, to speak of our dogs as our family when other families had children with braces and college educations to worry about. But he took a stand that day, and I recognize now that it’s what I wanted: For someone to inform me that I was not going to make such an emotionally consequential decision just for the temporary feeling that I was doing something constructive. Wolf packs may, without remorse, send adolescents off on their own when it’s become difficult to feed the whole pack, and in my deranged state of mind that day, I needed to be reminded we weren’t a wolf pack. He made this pronouncement without even having the knowledge that in the long run the gesture would’ve been financially insignificant. The regret would’ve lasted indefinitely.
But my moments of seeking his lead or council were few and soon forgotten in the face of how decisively I attempted to carry, push, or pull both of us to the other end of the lockout tunnel — the ’86-’87 season — even though there was no assurance that the end of this season would bring about a new one with a contract agreement, concert schedule, and budget. The music director had resigned (so, we surmised, he hadn’t been paid during the lockout), but as far as anyone knew, no guest conductors nor guest soloists had been booked for an ’87-’88 season.
Long before the summer of 1987, I had locked myself into a five-course load for fall, two at USD and three at Mesa College. I also requested as many summer school classes as they would give me at Mesa, then secured two additional summer evening classes at Cuyamaca College. The first eight weeks of summer I remained in maintenance overdrive, keeping a vegetable garden plus teaching and grading papers. With any remaining hours, I chose dog training over writing for the first (and only) time. Also during this summer an independent donor sponsored a brief series of concerts billed as “The Musicians of the San Diego Symphony” (since both “San Diego Symphony” and “San Diego Symphony Pops" could only be used if there was a contract with the current symphony management). The concert series did not pay substantially — the musicians received a cut of the profits, an amount similar to the biweekly unemployment checks — but by this time contract talks had resumed, and we felt we had made it. The finish line of a marathon approaching, the last bell in a one-sided boxing match about to sound, the first gas station in 100 miles of desert finally in sight. By the time my summer classes were completed, a new contract had been negotiated, and a new concert season announced — one without big-name guest artists but using soloists from within the orchestra instead. Of course there were immediate visible consequences of what management wanted to call the “hiatus.” During the lockout, many of the ensemble’s principal players had won auditions in bigger, more secure orchestras, in some cases leaving gaping holes to be filled, yet management boasted of $1 million in donations collected during the crisis.
But some lethal blows take longer to kill. Under a new contract with musicians, a fall concert season was launched in Symphony Hall in October 1987. During the ’87-’88 season, my first book. Animal Acts, was accepted for publication. The symphony held auditions for and filled numerous positions. Bizzy, whom I’d offered to sell during the lockout, won a best-in-match (over all breeds) and high-in-match (highest obedience score) at the same event. She continued to greet me with a distinct canine purr, demand her supper not a minute late, and relish turf-claiming treks with her pack. My husband finished his degree, played his graduate recital in the fall of 1988, and I was offered a prestigious position as writer-in-residence in Tennessee. It was a one-semester post, and since our marriage had begun long distance with me in New York, I didn’t hesitate to accept. But our unspoken view of my stint in Tennessee was as a trial separation. Similar to management’s lockout, spring of 1989 was a lockout in our marriage. From which we would not recover.
While writing my novel Dog People, which contains a subplot about a dance company experiencing bitter contract negotiations and a possible lockout, I learned that modern as well as classical dance companies are often founded and run by choreographers or former choreographers who are themselves former dancers. In dance, performers, former performers, those involved with creating the performance often have their hands on the reins of management. Symphony orchestras are seldom if ever (I’d like to say never) run by former professional musicians, but by businessmen, hired managers and executives, and by boards of directors made up of wealthy patrons. This difference may be significant in how the performers are treated and in how the performers view themselves. Compared to other large performing arts organizations — operas, theater groups, dance companies — musicians seem more likely to be dealt with as subordinates, incapable of management decisions, treated with an attitude that administration is not only beyond their ability but none of their business, still related to those musicians-as-servants who didn’t question the way the master ran the estate. In Hamlet, a group of independent traveling actors arrives at the castle to entertain the royal family. Hamlet expounds with some envy upon the lives of these thespians. In Gone with the Wind, every party scene has a live ensemble of musicians providing the music: servants — sometimes slaves — who play their instruments for the pleasure of the guests, with little acknowledgment and without stopping.
The disintegration of our marriage paralleled the motif of the unhappy musician-management relationship and the disconcerted symphony-city relationship. The symphony’s financial crisis, management’s use of contract negotiations to lock the musicians out for a year, and how we individually reacted worked to magnify, even distort; our preexisting personality traits. So when a storm hit us, we battled in opposite directions, as though leaning into two separate winds. I didn’t treat my husband as a servant. Still, I did not treat him as a partner but as a person I had to take care of and make decisions for, as though he were incompetent to manage his own life.
The ’86-’87 crisis and lock-out landed a lethal blow on the San Diego Symphony as well, but this was an even slower retrogression, a wound that pretended to heal while hiding the festering gangrene beneath the surface. With debts supposedly wiped clean in 1990 — the mortgage notes on Symphony Hall forgiven and the hall renamed Copley Symphony Hall — the orchestra management went back to business-as-usual. By 1991-92 there was nearly a million-dollar deficit in the operating budget. The ’94-’95 season itself netted a $1.5 million shortfall. Two familiar-sounding emergency fund drives were not successful. Once again paychecks were late and/or truncated. In 1995 the executive director, on the job for less than two years, resigned due to the stress of having to make payroll every two weeks. Now with more than $3 million in debts, half the nonmusician staff was laid off, contracts with guest soloists were canceled, but musicians — perhaps servants-no-more — did not agree to renegotiate their contract and accept a cut in pay. In answer to the musicians’ stance, management announced plans to file bankruptcy in January 1996. As a threat, the board’s vote to file bankruptcy resulted in a short flurry of negotiators with donors while the musicians were, in effect, out of work. The bankruptcy filing was delayed. Announcing that donors had contributed enough for the orchestra to resume its season in March, management and musicians ratified a waiver to the labor contract, calling for eight weeks of service with a minimum salary of $870 per week and a lump-sum payment to each musician due April 15. (Eight hundred seventy dollars was also the minimum weekly salary in the contract under which the musicians had already been working for the entire ’96-’96 season. The lump sum was to make up for earlier skipped and/or reduced paychecks going back to the previous November.) But within a month management reneged on the lump-sum payment of back wages, the musicians declined to rehearse, the remainder of the season was canceled, and management once again put out a call for donors to cover operating expenses. By the end of May, a Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy petition had been filed.
Again media spin tended to blame the musicians, who “refuse to rehearse” and “refuse to renegotiate their contract,” all but calling them greedy or stubborn. Yet no comment was made about a professional management that votes to file bankruptcy, a month later announces that donors had contributed enough for the orchestra to resume its concert schedule, and another month later admits that it had only secured donors for an endowment fund, not for the day-to-day operating expenses, nasty little details like paying the musicians. Had they, perhaps, hoped they could continue putting on concerts without having to deal with that aggravating necessity?
With what seemed to be the decisive death of the symphony several years after my divorce was final, what I felt was not relief that I didn’t have to go through it again, nor that any kind of “justice” had been served as payback for the pain of ending the marriage, nor any gloating that my ex-husband was now an ex-member of an ex-symphony. I did not feel anything but my own delayed grief…and, I admit, some uncomfortable helpless curiosity about what he was going to do. I was even a little worried.
The San Diego Symphony announced its rebirth and new schedule on June 19, 1998, and played its first concert, a summer “pops” extravaganza, on July 24, 1998. I’ll watch the sky for fireworks. And, until the next financial crisis. I’ll worry no more.
— Cris Mazza
Cris Mazza was born in Palos Verdes and grew up in Spring Valley. She is the author of eight books of fiction, most recently Dog People. Mazza taught for several years in San Diego at Mesa College, Miramar College, USD, and UCSD. She is now an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago but still spends summers in San Diego County. She trains and shows her Shetland sheepdogs in obedience trials.