The Performers Play On At Music Fair

Posted: June 14, 1987

Valley Forge Music Fair co-owner Shelly Gross laughs when he tells it: ''People still come up to me and ask, 'What do you do out there when it rains?' So, after I kill them, I tell them we're not a tent anymore. . . . We don't worry about the rain."

The tent was synonymous for years with the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon - from 1956, when the Music Fair opened, to 1971, when the tent theater came down for good at the end of the summer season. The entertainment center opened the next year on 10 acres on Swedesford Road.

"We've come a long way since the days of musicals only," said Jim McCormick, general manager, who has been with the Music Fair the past l5 years.

"The mix we present today cuts across the entire spectrum of entertainment: country music, all the rising young contemporary comedy stars, R & B, rock 'n' roll, all of the middle-of-the-road acts like Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, and the superstars - Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross. . . . I don't think people realize the scope of this organization."

"The organization" is the Music Fair Group, founded by Gross, Lee Guber and Philadelphia radio personality Frank Ford, who left the team in l967. Today, Gross, 66, and Guber, 65, operate both the Valley Forge Music Fair and the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island, N.Y.

Gross and Guber have been friends for more than 50 years, since they met at Philadelphia's Central High School. "Lee sat behind me alphabetically," Gross said, "and I always tell people it's too bad my name wasn't Shwartz

because maybe I would have been sitting behind a guy named Shubert and my whole life would have been better" - referring to the Shubert Organization, the Broadway producers. "But then Lee says, 'Yeah, maybe, but then you'd have to work for a living!' "

In l956, Gross, Guber and Ford mounted their first musical, The King and I, at Valley Forge. A year later, they opened the Westbury theater with the same production.

The original Music Fair Group operated seven theaters in New York, Maryland and Philadelphia and included the Playhouse in the Park in Fairmount Park. Over the years, that number dwindled because of increasing production costs.

Playhouse in the Park closed in 1981.

And, Gross noted, there just weren't enough new Broadway musicals, suitable for family entertainment, to take on the road. The billings today at Valley Forge and Westbury are, Guber says, "like the running of a magazine stand with a little bit of everything to appeal to a lot of people."

The Valley Forge Music Fair is open 10 months a year, closing in January and February for repairs and for the winter weather. There are 2,932 seats arranged in the round; as a result, there are no obstructed views.

In 1986, the Music Fair presented 260 shows, including 25 children's matinees. Ticket prices range from $15 to $25, with children's shows being considerably less. Valley Forge and Westbury operate in tandem, booking the same act a week or so apart.

Gross declined to discuss annual revenues for the privately held company, saying it was against company policy.

When the casinos in Atlantic City opened theaters, there was talk that Valley Forge might not be able to withstand the competition. But McCormick said the Music Fair had "absolutely not" suffered any decline as a result.

"Audiences at Atlantic City are just sort of there. People go to the casinos to gamble. . . . Many of them are comped (given free tickets) into the shows. Audiences for the Music Fair are here only to be entertained. Also, Atlantic City has backed away from buying as much talent as they used to

because they were paying astronomical fees to the performer and not getting it back," he said.

"Another advantage Valley Forge has is being on the 202 corridor. It is one of the most rapidly growing areas in the nation, and the people who are moving here are well-educated, affluent, with available expendable income. They are oriented to going out to be entertained. We're convenient and we give them the kinds of shows they're looking for."

Music Fair patrons seem to want moderately low-key entertainment. Performers who play in the very large venues, like the Spectrum in Philadelphia, with l5,000 seats, don't do the Music Fair. Popular rock bands are an example.

"This theater is really made for more intimacy between performer and audience," McCormick said. "We've had people play here who could easily fill the Spectrum, but they don't want to. Diana Ross, for example, likes to feel close to her audience, as does Kenny Rogers. When Rogers played here last year we had to add two extra shows, and I know we could have filled as many seats as we wanted to, even if we were larger than the Spectrum. But that's not what those performers want."

On a recent Saturday night, Sergio Franchi and Juliet Prowse were performing. The audience's ages appeared to range mostly from mid-30s to over 65. They seemed relaxed, at home.

One couple changed their seats about three times before settling down. When asked why, Sam Sternberg, speaking for himself and Helen Berman, both of Northeast Philadelphia, said, "Well, we're short, you know, and we saw there were a few empty seats, so we decided to move." Did they think that was permissible? "Sure," Sternberg said. "We've been coming here since it was a tent. Nobody minds if you move as long as you don't do it while the show is on. It's casual here."

Berman admitted she didn't attend the theater as much as she used to; she misses the musicals. "But," she said, "for Sergio, well, I wouldn't miss him." As Franchi performed "Volare," Berman and Sternberg mouthed the words with him.

There was another moment during the show when Prowse's microphone, which was hooked to her costume, went dead. People in the audience began to shout out, "Hey, Juliet, we can't hear you. Go get a mike!"

And Prowse, from the round stage, answered them, "I can't dance and hold a mike. Be patient and listen, I'll do the best I can."

As she completed her dance number, a member of the stage crew ran up to her with a hand mike. Prowse took it and the audience applauded her loudly.

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