Celebrating 75 Years of Music in the Park

75th Anniversary of the Incorporation of the Robin Hood Dell Concerts, Predecessor of The Mann Center for the Performing Arts

By Dr. Richard E. Rodda

In 1922, the City of Philadelphia built the Lemon Hill Concert Pavilion near the site of Henry Pratt’s Fairmount Park mansion (named for the lemons he grew in his greenhouse) and sponsored a series of free summer concerts there that were performed by a 50-piece ensemble mainly comprising members of the 22-year old Philadelphia Orchestra. Those programs attracted crowds often numbering 20,000, so in 1930 a new 10,000 seat, open-air amphitheater set between grassy knolls for thie overflow—called Robin Hood Dell after an old tavern that once stood near the Laurel Hill Cemetery—was opened at 33rd and Dauphin Streets, a spot easy to access by public transportation.

With the city’s budget in 1930 depleted by the Great Depression, the musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra, eager to work during the four summer months they weren’t contracted for performances at the Academy of Music, took over running the Robin Hood Dell Concerts at a cooperative venture. With support from some of the Orchestra’s regular donors, they were able to keep admission prices low, and 12,000 people attended the inaugural concert on July 8, 1930. What was known as Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, 90 players strong, about three-quarters of them members of The Philadelphia Orchestra, played every day for eight weeks that first season. The schedule was reduced to four performances a week in later years.

Robin Hood Dell became one of the warm-weather centers of American musical life during the following years. Leopold Stokowski and Alexander Smallens, respectively music director and assistant conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra, appeared there during the first season; Eugene Ormandy, who would be appointed the ensemble’s music director eight years later, made his Philadelphia debut that same summer; Fritz Reiner, Nikolai Sokoloff, Harold Bauer, Josef Hofmann, Jascha Heifetz, and Paul Whiteman appeared as guests; the premiere of the Overture to The School for Scandal at the Dell in 1933 marked Samuel Barber as one of the country’s most important young composers. Robin Hood Dell Concerts was formally incorporated on April 25, 1935, “to provide summer orchestral concerts, operas, ballets, and other musical events of the highest standards.”

Robin Hood Dell hosted many of the world’s finest musicians during and after World War II—Judy Garland (in her first public concert), Marian Anderson, Todd Duncan (the original Porgy), Kirsten Flagstad, Benny Goodman, Robert Merrill, Ezio Pinza, Artur Rubinstein, and many others—but by 1948 the venture had run into financial difficulties that shut down its season two weeks early.

Enter Fredric R. Mann.

Fredric Mann was born in Russia in 1903, immigrated to the United States with his family when he was two, and settled with them in New Haven. His greatest desire as a youngster was to become a concert pianist, but a car accident at age 16 ended that dream. He instead attended Yale and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, founded his own company almost immediately upon graduating, and made a fortune while still in his 20s manufacturing cardboard boxes. Mann’s love of music remained unaffected by his interest in business, and in 1936 he helped fund the foundation of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (its hall in Tel Aviv is named in his honor) and five years later joined the board of directors of the Robin Hood Dell Concerts. When the Concerts were in danger of folding in 1948, he devised the “Philadelphia Plan,” which established a “Friends of the Dell” whose contributions would be matched by the city to provide free admission for anyone who mailed in a coupon published in the local newspapers. During the remaining four decades of Mann’s life, it is estimated that the Philadelphia Plan provided some six million free tickets for orchestral concerts. Mann personally took over direction of the Robin Hood Dell Concerts at that critical juncture, working to fulfill his life-long ambition of bringing fine music to the widest possible audience, helping to finance the renovation of the Dell amphitheater, using his personal friendships with an entire galaxy of classical music stars to bring them to Philadelphia, and promoting the careers of William Kapell, Zubin Mehta, Jerome Lowenthal, Isaac Stern, Andre Watts, Leonard Bernstein and other emerging performers.

The high level of music-making at the Dell continued unabated during  the following decade, but the inadequacies of the original Fairmount Park facility—not least the audience’s exposure to inclement weather and the frequent cancellations that situation necessitated—began to make clear the need for a new summer performance venue for The Philadelphia Orchestra. Mann led the campaign for a modern pavilion across the Schuykill at George’s Hill in the west division of Fairmount Park, marshalling extensive city support as well as private and public funding for the site and the theater, and making up whatever was lacking from his own pocket. The new facility was opened in the bicentennial year of 1976 as Robin Hood Dell West, with covered seating for nearly 5,000, outdoor seating for another 4,500 and a 4,000 person capacity lawn (The recently renovated original amphitheater, now known as Robin Hood Dell East, continues to present jazz, pop, ethnic, and folk programs). In 1978 it was renamed the Mann Music Center; in spring 1997, ten years after Mann’s death, it became The Mann Center for the Performing Arts to reflect its expanding role in serving the entire community and the region’s other performing arts organizations.

The Mann Center for the Performing Arts not only honors the memory of one of Philadelphia’s defining philanthropists, but also perpetuates what Fredric Mann himself called the mission of “stimulating interest in good music everywhere. Every big city should have a Dell.” Every city should be so lucky.

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