By William Smith
For the past 94 years, Burlington Civic Music has been a source of musical culture for locals. An affordable avenue for everyday people without the time or means to catch a fancy musical production in a major metropolis.
Immediate past Burlington Civic Music President and programmer Barbara McRoberts was around 7 or 8 years old when she saw her first Civic Music show. And the experience stayed with her.
“Up through the 1970s, you dressed up to go to a show,” she said. “When you look at the date of 1929 when it (Civic Music) was founded, it was the flapper era — but it was still dressy.”
It was a different time, and Civic Music was at the cutting edge of entertainment. McRoberts does her best to combat modern stereotypes. She hears the whispers about Civic Music being nothing more than a chamber music experience for the elderly.
“That’s not true,” McRoberts said.
Indeed, the Civic Music program is a lot broader than it gets credit for. This season alone, the organization will host Scottish bagpipers with a rowdy sense of humor, a Christmas concert, and the Sofia Philharmonic on Feb. 24. No two shows are the same. Or even similar.
“There’s something for everyone,” McRoberts said.
Memorial Auditorium has served as the home for Civic Music for decades, but the program started out at a church.
“It was actually one of the Methodist churches,” McRoberts said.
The Civic Service program — a national program that started in the early 1920s — brought high-end musical performances to 130 cities. Burlington joined in, with the booking handled by the national organization.
Burlington Civic Music wasn’t born overnight. A local board was elected and a membership drive was held. The campaign goal was simple – put Burlington on the same cultural wavelength as larger cities.
More specifically, Burlington Civic Music wanted to “popularize good music in the community.” The idea was to make high-end concerts accessible.
“Too many people regard a concert as a mystical performance requiring special knowledge and a trained ear to make it comprehensible. This is a mistake,” the organization said in its listed objectives.
For decades, Civic Music had a strict policy about ticket sales.
“Civic Music didn’t sell tickets,” McRoberts said.
Instead, the organization sold memberships. Being a member was akin to being a season ticket holder. McRoberts was a catalyst for selling single tickets without the responsibility and price of a membership.
“We want people to come to the shows. If we don’t sell tickets, they can’t see it,” McRoberts said.
The first membership drive was held in April of 1929, and Civic Music hosted its first concert that October featuring pianist Claudio Muzio. The concert was held in the basement of First United Methodist Church.
Ironically enough, the concert was held on Oct. 24, 1929 – the same day as “Black Thursday,” which kick-started the Great Depression. The Burlington Hawk Eye reported that it might have been Black Thursday on Wall Street, but it was “a red-letter day in Burlington.”
Two years later, in the fall of 1931, Civic Music moved the musical performances from the church to the auditorium at Oak Street Junior High.
In May of 1939, the organization claimed 1,600 members — a thousand more than it started with after the first membership drive a decade earlier. It’s the highest membership in the history of the organization.
The glory years
Under the direction of the late Hazel Witte — who was listed as the president of Civic Music in 1942 and membership chair in 1937 — Civic Music entertained locals for decades.
“We used to sell over 1,000 season tickets. For a town this size, that’s incredible,” McRoberts said.
McRoberts introduced Civic Music to the Iowa Presenters Network after joining the civic music board. Her new role brought even more high-profile acts to Burlington.
So did Witte. McRoberts said Witte worked tirelessly to book the biggest, most national acts imaginable. Witte would fly to Chicago on her own dime to scout talent.
“She should be given a great deal of credit. She is the one who flew to New York,” McRoberts said.
Witte selected a small group of women who met at her home for the secretarial end of the job. Witte kept only hand-written notes (she didn’t type), and about 20 volunteers would gather in a sunroom overlooking the Mississippi River. The meetings were especially important before membership drives.
As the Hawk Eye reported in 1975, “Seven or eight typewriters in the room were going lickety-split at one time.”
Hazel had more than 100 volunteer captains, and they got free tickets if they could renew 20 Civic Music memberships or sell five new ones. Witte never afforded herself a free ticket, though.
“She was a force,” McRoberts said.
Witte booked Bob Hope for the auditorium in 1975, selling out every seat in the place. She often invited the performers to her home for refreshments, getting up close and personal with Hope and a litany of other celebrities. When she booked Red Skelton, the famous comedian insisted on arriving five days early so he could meet and talk to people in town.
With the likes of Pat Boone and other famous musicians, Witte had no trouble selling out the auditorium for multiple shows. She usually sold more memberships than the venue could hold, because she knew not everyone would show up.
Saving Civic Music
Witte retired from Civic Music in 1982. Audiences were shrinking and music bookings were becoming more expensive. Witte told “The Hawk Eye” that as far as she was concerned, the organization was finished as well.
“Civic Music was her show for 45 years. The reason that it survived so well is that she did it so well,” the Hawk Eye wrote.
The organization had been self-sufficient through membership fees, and there was concern that the program wouldn’t be able to survive without outside help.
A group of like-minded Burlington citizens provided that help.
Chuck Siekman, a well-known Burlington business owner, approached then Hawk Eye editor Stuart Awbrey about saving Civic Music. Awbrey agreed to finance the first year of Civic Music under the new direction to see if the program could find its legs.
Late Hawk Eye journalist Bobby Wilson became heavily involved in the booking of Civic Music in the 1980s and found there was still life to be held in organized music. He served as president from 1986 to 1990 and continued to book for the organization well after that.
“Bobby was cantankerous, but we worked together very well,” McRoberts said.
Wilson was a force in his own right — a lone wolf who didn’t care to work through committees or keep scrupulous notes. As the turn of the century arrived, though, Wilson’s ways chafed against some of the other board members.
“He wanted to do his own thing. And I told him, I said, ‘Bobby, you can’t do that anymore,’ ” McRoberts said.
McRoberts recalled visiting Wilson when he was in the hospital, where he expressed his desire to quit the Civic Music board. McRoberts wouldn’t let him.
“Bobby took over in the 80s in terms of doing all the programming for Civic Music,” McRoberts said.
As Wilson approached the end of his life in 2011, McRoberts made a point of sitting Wilson down and absorbing his years of knowledge — even if she had to squeeze it out of him.
“I told him, ‘We don’t know what you do. We don’t have a contract or anything,’” McRoberts said.
Wilson relented, and the two spent a lot of time together before his passing. McRoberts was able to take over the programming.
“I knew enough because of this (time spent with Wilson),” McRoberts said.
Holding it together
It’s the passion for community music that keeps the Civic Music organizers tethered to endless seasons of entertainment. Craig Borchard — who used to work for Southeast Iowa Regional Medical Center — still writes the press releases for the group. He moved out of Burlington several years ago.
Current president Kay Conrad has also helped the group survive, as has board member and former vice-president Lori Weiss.
“We had a good board. We still do,” McRoberts said. “It took us some time to get single ticket sales going. It took us some time to get Bobby convinced that he could work with other people. And it took the community a while to realize this is an asset.”
Incorporated as a 501(c)3 in March 1984, Burlington Civic Music hasn’t been self-sufficient in nearly 30 years. But ticket sales — especially season ticket sales — are vital in keeping the organization afloat. The rest of the money comes from grants and donations.
“The community has been very supportive. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” McRoberts said.
COVID-19 nearly killed the Civic Music program a few years ago. When the lockdowns started, McRobert’s first instinct was to cancel the season entirely. But that would actually be more expensive than limping through a partial season.
McRoberts had practice from the year before when major flooding shut down the auditorium. There was no heat in November, but Civic Music organizers improvised. They held a concert anyway and encouraged attendees to wear their coats.
McRoberts thought the booking disasters were over. But she hadn’t seen anything yet.
“We got it (2019 shows) done. And then as you’re good into 2020, guess what happened? COVID happened,” McRoberts said. “We didn’t cancel, and we did not shut down.”
Some performances were postponed or moved. Venues were improvised. But the show went on.
“That (2021) was the year we had our first outdoor show. People didn’t want to go inside because of COVID, so we took them outside,” McRoberts said.
The pandemic has had a lasting impact on attendance, though. Before COVID, McRoberts said they usually filled around 750 seats per show. This past year, it’s been around 400 to 450 people.
“We’re never going to have people in the thousands again. We’ve lost so many people,” McRoberts said.
Civic Music was further hampered by the ongoing TIGER grant-funded redevelopment of downtown. But that’s only been a minor issue compared to what came before. McRoberts said the city was wonderful about providing bus services and extra routes to the shows.
falling post-pandemic numbers aren’t just endemic to Burlington. As part of the Iowa Presenters Network, McRoberts has seen the same scenario play out across the county. A lack of volunteers — also a national problem — isn’t helping.
“Season concert series in communities the size of Burlington are dying. The ones that are in larger cities are sustaining reasonably okay,” McRoberts said.
It’s a classic case of not knowing what you have until it’s gone. There’s nothing in Burlington quite like Civic Music. After 93 years, the organization may seem invincible.
But no organization can survive continued apathy. McRoberts hopes the citizens of Burlington will see the program through its 100th anniversary and beyond.
“If people don’t buy tickets — well, we won’t be here,” McRoberts said.