The Orchestra’s Subscribers: Fiercely Loyal, Financially Essential and Sometimes Fickle : PASADENA SYMPHONY : She’s in Tune With Pasadena

They are the backbone of arts organizations, providing up to 90% of the audiences and of the revenues. Most are fiercely loyal and willing to volunteer their support, such as subscriber Betty Rockwell has done for years at the Pasadena Symphony. But some are fickle, as the Master Chorale of Orange County is discovering as the novelty of its new home at the Performing Arts Center wears off. Even the mighty Los Angeles Philharmonic has a 25% annual subscriber turnover rate. At the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, the goal is to retain 75% to 80% of all subscribers, and at 65% renewals this year it will be a struggle. Why are subscribers so imporant? Single-ticket sales are “scary,” says Deborah Rutter of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, “because you never know how you’re doing until the last minute.” As the 1989-90 music season begins, here are five portraits of these key people, the subscribers themselves.

Betty Rockwell, a lifelong supporter of the Pasadena Symphony, grew up hearing the orchestra and has followed its fortunes since she was a music and art student at Occidental College in the 1930s.

A fifth-generation Californian with a longtime passion for music (she collects musical instruments), Rockwell remembers how American women, as volunteers, often ran their symphonic organizations in the days before professional managers.

In those years, volunteer labor, sometimes even from orchestra members, characterized U.S. symphonic life outside the largest cities.

Rockwell says that at one time--around 1970--before Civic Auditorium went all union, she arranged the subscriber seating in the auditorium. “I did that for two years, usually working night and day,” she recalls of the era before computers when chores like seat-assignment were complicated manual jobs. Today, thanks to electronics, seats are allotted in microseconds for the Pasadena Symphony’s nearly 2,000 subscribers.


Rockwell also served on the finance committee of the orchestra for 13 years, was president of the women’s committee for two, and treasurer of the finance committee for four years.

“At the end of every season, we would get on the phone and try to convince people to renew their subscriptions. Sometimes we had to do quite a selling job--people always had so many other choices, it seemed.”

She has lived in Pasadena with her husband Bill since 1957. They have also been subscribers to the L.A. Philharmonic--where they have been Wednesday-night subscribers for 25 years--and L.A. Civic Opera, among other producing performance organizations.

“I go to the opera and ballet, but my husband doesn’t,” says Rockwell, seated in the quiet living room of her comfortable, Spanish-style home, not far from the Rose Bowl.

“He loves the symphony, and grew up with it, but wasn’t exposed to opera and ballet.”

From its inception in 1928, the Pasadena Symphony has drawn an audience made up mostly of residents of the San Gabriel Valley. Even today, according to manager Robert McMullin, “we have very few subscribers from the Westside, and not many more from the San Fernando Valley. Our audience comes from Pasadena, South Pasadena, Arcadia, Altadena and other nearby communities, like Glendale and Burbank.”

But that audience is loyal. When subscribers do not renew, says McMullin, “It’s almost never because of anything as controversial as programming. It’s because they move away, or find they buy a series of five concerts and are too busy to attend more than one or two. Or because, as they grow older, some people choose not to go out in the evening.” Nevertheless, “This year our renewal rate is about 80%.” The cost of five concerts ranges from $50 to $110.

Over the years, the Rockwells have been close, Mrs. Rockwell says, to the musical leaders of the orchestra, as well as to players in the ensemble. When Richard Lert retired in 1972, the couple hosted the post-concert party honoring him.

And she is still a close friend of former Pasadena music director Daniel Lewis, as well as a great admirer of the current conductor, Jorge Mester. Rockwell says she is proud of the orchestra’s long tradition of bringing new and contemporary music, as well as standard works, to its subscribers.

“I have a friend in Chicago who is well over 80. About listening to new music, he says, ‘I don’t like it, but I want to know what’s going on.’ ”

That’s close to what Rockwell says about her own tolerance for contemporary compositions.

“There are two things about new pieces. First, I want to learn. Then, I like to stay young.”