Hal Thaus John Denver Holiday Concert keeps the spirit alive
Ryan Summerlin December 19, 2008
ASPEN While serving as a business manager to various artists first jazz musicians, then comedians Hal Thau became accustomed to seeing his clients do strange things with their money. Thau was surprised to discover that pianist Ahmad Jamal had opened a restaurant and lounge in Chicago and, from a business standpoint, horrified by the fact that Jamal was a Muslim, who would not serve liquor at the establishment. And Thau was continually astonished and dismayed by comedian Jackie Vernons penchant for earning big bucks during engagements in the Catskills, and blowing the entire paycheck before he even made it back to New York City.Wed help them as much as they would listen, said Thau, summarizing the relationship he and his longtime partner, Steve Burn, had with their artist clients.Perhaps the most reckless stance toward money that Thau ever witnessed came from his longest-lasting client, John Denver. It was the mid-60s, and the late Aspenite had just been chosen to take over for singer Chad Mitchell in the popular folk group, the Mitchell Trio. Denver was young, not particularly well known, no wealthier than anyone else on the folk circuit and he pledged his desire to pay off the Mitchell Trios debt to American Airlines, which Thau recalls as being in the neighborhood of $44,000. And never mind that Denver, a relative newcomer to the group, was in no way responsible for the charges.I advised him against it. He wasnt a partner in the group; he had no money, said Thau, who has had a home in Aspen for 35 years, and has lived full time, with his wife Dorothy, in a house on Meadowood for 15 years. But where his clients financial shenanigans typically drew a roll of the eyes, and then a major effort to recover what dollars could be salvaged, Denvers action earned Thaus admiration. Thats when I came to love the guy. His integrity. He felt, he had two years in the Mitchell Trio, learned a lot, and would become a big enough star or at least make a good enough living that he could pay it off. Hed send checks from the road, from little gigs, $500, $300, whatever he could. It took a while. Dealing with crazies, and along comes this guy, does this incredible thing. It endeared him to me.Thau demonstrated just how fond he was of his client a decade later. In 1978, Thau, restless to get into a new corner of the entertainment business, made a deal with his partner, Burn: Thau would take Denver; Burn could have all the rest the comedians and jazz players left from their early days, the singers and songwriters, the real-estate interests which Burn had cultivated and which Thau had little interest in anyway.It was an incredible risk. Because John could have left me the next day, said Thau, explaining that he and Denver had never operated under a written contract.Denver did not find other management. Thau represented Denver till the day, in 1997, when the singer died in a plane crash in Monterey Bay.
Thaus relationship with Denvers legacy lives on. He still handles Windstar Productions, the entity which controls Denvers intellectual property. In 2002, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts debuted Almost Heaven, a stage show built around Denvers songs. It was the first production conceived by Thau in his 50 years working with artists. Almost Heaven became the longest-running show in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts history, with 179 performances, before it moved for a short run to the Promenade Theatre, on Manhattans Upper West Side, and then going on tour.Thaus latest venture is A John Denver Holiday Concert. The show, featuring two singers including Jim Newman, who has starred in Almost Heaven and a band led by former Aspenite and Denver band member Danny Wheetman, was debuted two years ago by the Rubicon Theatre Company, in Ventura, Calif. It makes its Aspen premiere with a run, Friday through Tuesday, at the Wheeler Opera House. The show is directed by Randal Myler, who directed Almost Heaven as well as the music-oriented stage productions Love, Janis and It Aint Nothin But the Blues.Thau says A John Denver Holiday Concert grew out of his desire to add something new to the routine collection of Nutcracker and Its a Beautiful Life productions that got rolled out every year, just after Thanksgiving. But he also noted the strong tie between Denver and Christmas: For several years, the singer performed televised Christmas shows, shot in Aspen. Part of his repertoire were such seasonal songs as Christmas for Cowboys and Aspenglow. A John Denver Holiday Concert includes both of those, as well as holiday standards (Deck the Halls, Silent Night, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas) and Denver signature songs (Perhaps Love, Annies Song, Take Me Home Country Roads).Thau was knocked out by the response to A John Denver Holiday Concert in Ventura. The Los Angeles Times said the entrancing revue … could not be more sincerely entertaining. In truth, Thau was amazed that the L.A. Times sent a reviewer the 40 miles up the Pacific Coast Highway to see the show. When Thau got his start in the business world, he didnt have Christmas shows or newspaper reviews in mind. But the Bronx native and City College of New York grad I went to school on the Third Ave. L, down from the Bronx, he says of his college commute and his college buddy Burn were huge in the handbag business.We had to scuffle to build this little business at night, said Thau, who became a CPA and earned a masters, in industrial engineering, from Columbia University. We had clients in the garment center clients who made handbags and clients who made parts of handbags.Burn & Thau became aligned with a group of attorneys who handled jazz musicians. And suddenly we became, quote, business managers, said Thau. Their first client was singer Nina Simone; they would add Duke Ellington, Nat and Cannonball Adderley and Teddy Wilson to their roster. Burn & Thau took a most hands-on approach to their dealings.Steve and I were very aggressive. We did more, probably because we wanted to charge more, said Thau (pronounced like what everyone in Aspen is looking forward to after this cold snap), a warm, active 74-year-old who has a way with old stories. (They are detailed in his 2002 book, Bronx to Broadway.) If we took on a business, we became the controllers of the business. When you start off with small clients, they dont have financial people. We tried to be more proactive. And we took that into our entertainment business. We were more active. We helped with contracts, what to do with their money if they had any. And keeping them straight with the IRS.In the 60s, as black jazz musicians became more race conscious, Thau began to consider it inappropriate for a couple of white guys to handle their careers. He segued into comedians, building a roster that included Jackie Mason and Stiller & Meara. The job was even more difficult: Comedians, said Thau, wear their art on their sleeve. If they tell a joke or story and nobody laughs, theyre naked. Theyre vulnerable. And it takes 10 years playing clubs, the Catskills to finally develop your theme and by then, youre nuts.Among Thaus acquaintances on the New York entertainment scene was Milt Okun. A former high school teacher, a sometime singer, and an expert on folk music, Okun became a producer for Peter, Paul & Mary, the Brothers Four and the Chad Mitchell Trio. When Harry Belafonte had a hit with The Banana Boat Song also known as Day-O Belafonte was instantly tagged a folk artist. He went to Milt and said, Im supposed to be a folk artist youve got to help me, said Thau.When Mitchell left his eponymous trio, Thau was brought in by Okun as part of the new team. The Mitchell Trio was just another client and with the steamroller called rock n roll wiping out folk and jazz, it was the most significant of clients. (It wasnt even close to being the most exciting client with the name of Mitchell that Thau handled at the time. That honor belonged to the young Canadian songwriter, Joni.) When the Mitchell Trio broke up, though, Thau stuck with its new lead singer, even through the short-lived act, the Denver, Boise & Johnson.By the early 70s, under his own name, Denver became pumping out the hits. He became an international figure, known for his smooth tenor, his activism on environmental and social issues, the granny glasses and songs like Rocky Mountain High, Sunshine on My Shoulder and Thank God Im a Country Boy. And to Thau, he remained a caring, generous client and friend.After he was successful he was my brother, said Thau, who was 10 years older than Denver. He really was my brother. On the way up, starting to really make it, he said, Hal, dont work so hard. You were with me on the way up; take it easy. How many people say that? Denver put his band up in the same hotels he stayed in, and instructed Thau to pay them more than the going rate.The easy-going nature didnt prevent Denver from becoming what Thau calls the biggest artist in the world in the 70s. Hed do three or four television specials for ABC a year, sold-out concerts in 15,000-seat arenas. The biggest-selling artist for RCA. He was my principal artist at the time. John was the focal point of my career. By 1978, Denver was still going strong; as late as the early 80s, he was still hosting the Grammy Awards ceremony and his albums were being certified gold. Relations between Denver and Thau were solid. Still, Thau was itching for something new.Steve [Burn] was getting into real estate, and that didnt feel good to me anymore, said Thau, who lived for most of his career in Westport, Conn., where he and Dorothy raised two children. I wanted to do more creative things in my life.A week after dissolving the partnership, Thau was on his way to Chicago, to check out a play by an upstart local theater company, Steppenwolf. The play True West, by Sam Shepard had already had a brief, ill-fated run in New York. But Thau was floored by the Chicago version, and its two young stars, John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. He brought the production to the Cherry Lane Theatre, a 199-seat Off-Broadway venue in the West Village.True West ran for two years at the Cherry Lane. (Malkovich remains one of Thaus few artist clients.) Thau resisted effort to move the show to Broadway, but he did welcome bigger ventures. For a year, he focused his efforts on London, producing David Mamets Glengarry Glen Ross, and working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Like partnering with Microsoft, he said of the latter.) He made it to Broadway in 2004, as a producer of the Bollywood-themed musical Bombay Dreams. And in 2006, he hit it big, as one of the producers of the edgy, hit musical Spring Awakening.Its a breakthrough musical, Thau said of Spring Awakening, which is still running at the Eugene ONeill Theatre. Talk about a risk. Its all about teenage sexuality and all the problems that come with it. Talk about brilliance these two guys composer Duncan Sheik and writer Steven Sater take an obscure play from the 1800s, from Germany, no stars. And its brilliant. We won eight out of the 10 Tony Awards. (Thau has his Tony statue on a desk in a room that is otherwise filled mostly with John Denver memorabilia.)All the time that Thau watched his clients perform, he never harbored much desire to trade places with them. He never had a need for the spotlight, seeing his talents were best utilized elsewhere.I knew from the start Im not a director, said Thau, who is currently exploring the possibility of helping to bring reasons to be pretty, the latest Neil LaBute play, from Off-Broadway to Broadway. A director or designer can walk into an empty room and put it together. I can walk into the room, once its put together, and say, OK, this works. And its going to work for an audience.
A John Denver Holiday Concert will be presented Friday through Tuesday at the Wheeler Opera House. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets (reserved seating) are $40 for adults and $25 for children, available at the Wheeler or at email@example.com