Pledge of $250,000 Raises Hopes for Symphony

San Diego County Arts Writer

Hundreds of supporters offered cash and other aid to the beleaguered San Diego Symphony after Thursday's announcement that the orchestra would fold should it fail to raise $1 million by March 10.

The darkness surrounding the debt-ridden orchestra began to lift Friday when Muriel Gluck pledged $250,000, which in a single stroke reduced the fund-raising goal by one-fourth. A total of more than $284,000 in pledges and cash had been received by 6 p.m., leaving $716,000 to be raised if the symphony is to avoid bankruptcy.

Most of the relief came from two sources: an anonymous donor who promised a check of $20,000, and Gluck, a Los Angeles philanthropist who also maintains a San Diego residence. Gluck has also aided the San Diego Museum of Art; a donation in her name and that of her late husband, Maxwell, funded a new gallery in 1985.

Symphony President M.B. (Det) Merryman praised Gluck's donation but added that "we still have $750,000 to raise."

"This lady said that now is the time for people who have the capability to raise these gifts to step forward," Merryman added. He said the symphony will not cash any checks received until "we reach our goal. By contributing to the symphony now, people will not be throwing money down a hole."

The symphony ceased paying salaries and all bills as of Thursday. Its 90 orchestra members agreed to play this week's and next week's concerts free at the request of the board of directors.

The symphony's debt is expected to grow to $2 million by September, the end of its current season. A patron has promised to kick in $500,000 if $1.5 million is raised by March 10. The symphony already had $500,000 in pledges.

News of the symphony's impending bankruptcy drew an immediate community response. Within six hours of the announcement, "people off the street" brought in $3,020 in cash, a symphony spokeswoman said. Then on Friday, support began to snowball when the $20,000 check was promised.

Businesses and organizations began to offer the 76-year-old musical group assistance. The Westgate Hotel contributed space and meals for fund-raising luncheons for businessmen next week. The Abbey restaurant donated the proceeds from a special entertainment event Friday night. And a single professionals society has scheduled a 6 p.m. Wednesday open house benefit at Symphony Hall. Admission is $15 to the event, which will have a no-host bar.

After Thursday's news, it was revealed that the symphony has not been paying the musicians' health or instrument insurance since November, although deductions had been made from their paychecks. Payments to the musicians' pension fund are also in arrears.

"There's a lady orchestra member in the hospital with a major illness," said C. Patric Oakley, secretary-treasurer of Local 325 of the American Federation of Musicians. "She may not be covered."

Richard Bass, symphony general manager, said that although the deductions were made, there was no money to forward to the insurance companies. "The instrument insurance lapsed, though the health insurance hasn't lapsed," Bass said. "We treated the insurance as payables. All of our payables (unpaid bills) are in arrears in order to make the payrolls."

Bass said that the health insurance had not lapsed even though money is owed to the insurance company. The coverage for damage or loss of the musicians' instruments was reinstated Friday, through March 26.

Bass labeled as "grossly exaggerated" a report that the pension payments were behind by $750,000. "We're approximately $55,000 behind. We haven't made the last two payments," he said.

Because of the $1.8-million debt, the symphony found that it has become increasingly difficult to meet its biweekly $250,000 payroll for the orchestra and 28 staff members. The board of directors decided to make a last-ditch effort to raise enough money to wipe out all of the debt. The symphony's annual operating budget is $7.9 million, up from $5.7 million in 1985.

Ironically, fund solicitation letters stating that $1.5 million had already been pledged and only $500,000 remained to be raised went out Thursday, the same day the symphony announced that it still needed to raise $1 million.

"The letters should not have been mailed," said Ken Overstreet, the symphony's development director. He explained that, as of the week before, $1.5 million had been pledged, but one of the pledges "fell out." Overstreet emphasized that all current pledges are "hard pledges" and can be counted on.

At Friday night's concert, music director David Atherton preceded the performance with a request for financial support. Tables and fishbowls were set up in the Symphony Hall lobby for contributions from concertgoers. Symphony officials said the office telephones will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday for callers wishing to contribute.

A telemarketing team was mobilized in the symphony offices to solicit contributions nightly. A fund-raising radiothon is slated for Sunday afternoon on classical music station KFSD-FM (94.1), and a telethon is scheduled from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday on KUSI-TV (Channel 51).

Orchestra members met Thursday night to organize committees to deal with problems that may arise for individual players.

"The musicians were quite united," said one player who requested anonymity. "There was some anger that, if management had known of this problem, they should have let us know. One musician just put a house into escrow."

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