Washington should remember Irvin Feld, who died last week, and his late brother Israel for far more than their ownership of "The Greatest Show on Earth," the Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Long before the world had heard of him, Irvin and Israel Feld introduced Placido Domingo in one of his earliest Radames for their open-air "Aida" on the Carter Barron stage. They got hold of an oddity from Germany called "Dancing Waters," which you saw again this summer in the Olympic telecasts at the closing ceremonies. Danilova, Slavenska and Frederic Franklin danced for them in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, as did Youskevitch, Maria Tallchief, Erik Bruhn, Nora Kaye, John Kirza and Leon Daniellian with the Lucia Chase-Oliver Smith Ballet Theater.
Alone on stage, Danny Kaye would get 5,000 people to strike as many matches for memorable finales, Harry Belafonte would lure audiences to sing along with him, and Carol Channing, dripping rain water, would toss her diamonds into audience umbrellas. Another star was a Canadian teen-ager who so pestered Irvin to hear him sing that he gave up and listened -- to the enduring Paul Anka, whom he took on as one of his hundreds of clients.
The price scale for the tickets ran from $1.25 to $3, though eventually they had to go to $3.85.
It happened like this:
1950 was to be the city's 150th anniversary, and Carter T. Barron, the Georgia Tech football star who represented MGM and Loew's in Washington, was named head of the sesquicentennial committee. He decided that something patriotic, along the lines of "The Lost Colony," would be an appropriate theme. By then Paul Green's "symphonic drama" had been running for more than 10 years at Nag's Head, N.C., and Barron wanted Washington to make its own patriotic splash.
So in the winter of '48, though Washington needed an indoor theater far more than one outdoors, Barron and Green explored Rock Creek Park in the snow for a natural amphitheater site, and Green started working on one of his drama-cum-music-cum-dance histories. He depicted Washington choosing the new capital's site, the government's move from Philadelphia, John and Abigail Adams' brief White House residence and the election of Thomas Jefferson. The point was -- as it had been for "The Lost Colony" and hundreds of like works since -- that it all happened here, right here.
Green's "Faith of Our Fathers" opened in the summer of 1950, but what had worked in the relative wilds didn't with the metropolitan audiences. Or critics. "Well," said Green, as he always did about his summer spectaculars, "we'll fix it next year."
President Truman had been out of town that summer, and by 1951 Carter Barron had died. Truman determined that the Rock Creek amphitheater should be named for Carter, and when he presided over the ceremony, he brought along his pianist friend, Emmanuel List.
What I recall most clearly about that May night was something Truman said: "Make no little plans," he said, quoting city planner V. H. Burnham, "Great plans can always be amended to suit situations. Little plans can never be expanded."
Irvin and Israel Feld must have been listening, for though "Faith of Our Fathers" staggered through the summer, it was no cigar. They imagined what might be done.
The third summer the National Park Service tried booking attractions, but not until its end -- when the Felds brought in the Ballet Russe for three weeks (on the cement-based stage) -- did taxi drivers learn where 16th Street met Colorado Avenue.
In 1953, film star Constance Bennett, then a resident of Georgetown, turned on her glamor for official permission to run the place. While she staged such musicals as "Show Boat," "Of Thee I Sing" and "Carousel," business details were not her style. Visiting performers learned that they could pick up any backstage phones and call all over the map. One month the phone bill came to over $20,000, which meant the end of the colorful lady's $200,000 investment.
By the time the Felds renewed their offer in 1954, the Park Service had learned its lesson. For years it would get a percentage of the Felds' profits, which, what with rising costs and rained-out nights, were erratic, but still profits. The Felds took all the risks.
They conceived a marvelous sales gimmick -- "The Value Book." Selling for $3.50, more than the price of a seat, it contained a batch of coupons. One was for free admission to any performance. Another would give the bearer two admissions for the price of one. Others were good for 50 cents on all tickets purchased, or on winter attractions the Felds offered at Constitution Hall, or cash value for records purchased at the Felds' Super Music stores. To enhance the appeal of these little books, the Felds limited the supply to only 15,000, which meant that as soon as they went on sale one spring day, they were sold by nightfall.
And so the summers sped on for well over a decade, long before the Merriweather Post Pavilion, Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center existed.
Not a cent of government money subsidized the Felds. They used their own, as they would for Ringling Brothers and all those ice revues, Disney parades and Vegas magic shows they'd send around the country and on world tours. Their aim was family audiences and their accent on varied programs, from Felix Salmaggi's operas, based on his father's Hippodrome formula, to musical plays, ballet companies and big-name entertainers.
In time, new places seating up to 20,000 and more all around the land would mean far higher grosses for big-buck attractions, but there was no way of expanding the Carter Barron's not quite 5,000 seats. More than three nights of rain could destroy a season -- whether they worked or not, all hands had to be paid.
Somewhere along the line people began to assume the Felds were making a killing with their popular open-air attractions, which was nonsense. The shows were paid for by their profits elsewhere.
"We meant it," Irv and Izzy used to say, "as a gift to the city which has given us so much. We kept the prices down and got attractions which would appeal to families."
Without Irvin and Israel Feld to give it their imaginative, generous, showmanly splash, the Carter Barron is now more celebrated as a parking lot.