Dallas Summer Musicals and the Center for the Performing Arts Battle It Out for Broadway

DSM says CPA will cannibalize other theaters. CPA says DSM is afraid of competition. We say 'bout time rich people fought rich people.

Wow. This is starting to feel like a real city. Now we've got real estate mogul Harlan Crow hurling brickbats at media mogul Robert Decherd's plan for a city-owned downtown convention hotel. We've got the rich people behind the Dallas Summer Musicals throwing rocks at the rich people behind the new Dallas Center for the Performing Arts.

Did a piano fall on my head and I went to heaven?

It was such hard work all those many long years, out there alone in the Trinity River bottoms slinging mud all by myself. The skeeters. The insults. People don't know how I suffered. Now they're picking up the mud and throwing it for me!

The fight between the Dallas Summer Musicals and the Center for the Performing Arts is one I really don't know much about. If I were wise, I would keep my nose out of it. So, of course, I won't keep my nose out of it.

The CPA, as I call it, is the huge new agglomeration of theaters and halls under construction in the arts district on the north end of downtown. In the other corner, the Dallas Summer Musicals is a 68-year-old program that presents Broadway road shows at the Music Hall theater in Fair Park.

Earlier this year the mayor appointed a facilitator to try to work out a deal by which the Summer Musicals could present Broadway shows at the new opera house that will be part of the CPA when it opens in October 2009. On April 5 the CPA announced the talks had failed, and the CPA elected to present its own musicals in competition with the Summer Musicals.

The announcement elicited bitter howls from City Hall and from Michael Jenkins, the impresario who runs the Summer Musicals. Jenkins, joined by city manager Mary Suhm, suggested darkly that the center, a city-owned but privately run facility, is setting out to "cannibalize" other city-owned facilities including the Fair Park Music Hall and the Majestic Theatre—a charge Jenkins has repeated to me.

The CPA, for its part, suggested darkly that Jenkins has enjoyed a monopoly in this market for too long and is merely afraid of competition—a charge the CPA has repeated to me.

But those are the kinds of weak-ass brickbats and tepid mud-balls you could get anywhere. I mean, you could find stuff like that in The Dallas Morning News. If I'm going to watch rich people get down in the mud and fight, I want to see some hair-pulling and some dentures flying. Which, to my everlasting delight, I am beginning to spy.

The really good stuff is still a bit behind the scenes and whisper-whisper so far, but I shall endeavor in every way I know how to bring more of it into full public view in the weeks ahead. For example, people on both sides of this issue, speaking to me on condition of anonymity last week, made what they thought were serious accusations of conflict of interest against each other.

I am not going into detail about any of it here, because, frankly, I think the charges probably were pretty iffy all the way around. That's the thing about your arts mavens: Even when they want to fight dirty, it takes them a while to master the moves. If the history of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is any guide, we have only to wait a few weeks. They'll figure out where to kick each other soon enough.

Until now in Dallas, the rich and powerful have all worn the same robes and sung from the same hymnal on almost all issues of importance. That was the scary thing about last year's referendum to stop a highway from being built along the riverbanks downtown: The city's power elite lined up like the Soviet Army Chorus in favor of the highway and against nature.

Angela Hunt, a freshman city council member, led a grassroots alliance into battle with the city's elites over the Trinity River toll road. She lost but came within five percentage points in the November 6, 2007, election, in spite of the other side's huge funding advantage.

Hunt clearly caught the imagination and fired the hearts of a vast swath of the electorate, but it will always be difficult for any person to butt heads against a solid wall of money and power. That's why I am so thrilled to see cracks forming, especially over the convention hotel.

Since Hunt lost on the Trinity, a certain drumbeat has sounded out there beneath the foliage: The victors, led by Mayor Tom Leppert, have suggested in sidebar remarks and by political body language that Hunt is some kind of irrelevant hippie. She opposed authority. Now she's never going to be accepted by the popular kids.

But if you follow the convention hotel debate closely—and perhaps we will all get a better chance soon to do just that—then you can see the debate illuminating her in a quite different light. In point of fact, Hunt's roots are in the protection of neighborhoods. Her instincts are to fill the potholes and paint out the graffiti.

Government is government. Business is business.

She is young and urban, not old and suburban, so she's going to wind up at odds with things like a high-speed commuter bypass highway through what should have been a gorgeous downtown park. And she is going to be "liberal" on diversity questions—a designation that has less and less precision the farther down the age scale you go. By the time you get into the 20-somethings, you find lots of liberal non-racists and conservative non-racists—part of what makes the Barack Obama thing so intriguing.

When people listen closely to what Hunt has to say about the prospect of a city-owned hotel for the convention center, they will hear a basically conservative line: In remarks about it so far, she has said that City Hall should tend to the job it's supposed to do—gutters, sewers, sidewalks and cops—and not go off on high-risk private-sector flings like a hotel project.

"It's so much harder to do the mundane," she said to me last week. "Where can we cut? How can we get back to where we can do the basics? Going through the budget is such tedious work. It's so much more fun to do these big projects."

The other side—the side pushed so aggressively by The Dallas Morning News and the mayor—is the one promoting public-sector excursions into private-sector activities. That's why it's so interesting to listen to Hunt's only ally on the council on this issue, Mitchell Rasansky.

Rasansky, a real estate guy himself, doesn't waste a lot of time on philosophy. He says he knows real estate, and he knows that the city council doesn't know real estate. So why get into it?

I could have teased out all these same kinds of issues from the Trinity River debate, with one major difference. All the money was on one side. In the convention center hotel fight, the money is deeply divided.

On one side you've got Robert Decherd, head of the company that owns the Morning News along with a heck of a lot of downtown real estate right next to the place where the hotel would be built. He wants it. On the other side you have Harlan Crow and an alliance of private hotel owners who think a city-owned, tax-exempt hotel will confront them with unfair competition.

In recent days, suggestions have grown stronger that we may see a well-funded petition drive calling for a referendum on the hotel. If that happens, I haven't just died and gone to heaven. I'm in heaven, and they've put me on the admissions desk.

If we see vigorous debate in Dallas with some parity of forces on at least two sides, then the true underlying issues may be illuminated in a brand-new way for Dallas. And I'm actually not talking only about flying teeth and hair-pulling. Go back to the Broadway issue, for example.

Both sides in that fight have strong arguments to make. Michael Jenkins is one of three people who have produced successful Broadway theater in this city since the Summer Musicals began in 1941. But the CPA is a very serious, extremely well-funded new kid on the block. They contend that a little competition will spice the soup, not spoil it.

Strange things happen when rich people fight rich people. Conceivably, I could be forced at some point to choose sides, which would put me on the side of Dallas rich people. I don't even know if I could handle that. That may be the point where I just go get a sandwich board and start letting my beard grow.

The Broadway Brouhaha is not going to produce a referendum, but the Hotel Hoopla might. If it does, who knows exactly how it will shake out, with Harlan Crow behind it? We could wind up with no convention hotel but with City Hall turned into a hotel, to be run by Crow.

In the largest sense—utterly foolish as this may be even to utter—I have to wonder if Dallas might not even be evolving to a new, more truly urban condition. If we've got enough arts mavens to argue amongst themselves and enough moguls to fight each other, then isn't that a sign we're not a hick town anymore?

The Crows, though. I'm just not sure. They have a certain history. The old man, Trammell, was always very independent. Maybe it's just genetic for those Crows to take on the rest of the gang every once in a while.

My real dream? The shimmering vision? One day I want to see a knock-down, drag-out, eye-gouging, head-butting free-for-all between Robert Decherd and oilman billionaire Ray Hunt. Then we'll be on the way to being New York.

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