In forty plus years, Joe Hicks has had thousands of one-night stands. Touring performers take that as part of the business along with all night drives, a different bed in a different city every night, and the inability to remember where you are when you wake up each morning. Hicks wakes up in Sherman most mornings, in the same bed, but his performances are one night-stands nonetheless.
He is an impresario. Reach back one hundred years and that magic word calls up names such as Charles Frohman, George M. Cohan and Florenz Ziegfeld. Okay, Ziegfeld may be a stretch as Travis Street is not really the Great White Way and willowy showgirls in costumes of feathers and lace rarely trod the boards of Kidd-Key Auditorium. Nevertheless, in his own way, Joe Hicks is Texoma’s version of the great impresario of the Follies, except that Ziegfeld’s shows ran for months, and Hicks’ shows all bring down the curtain after one performance.
Hicks heads up the Community Series, the long running presentation program that brings the Sherman Symphony, high-level professional entertainment and the performing arts to the Grayson County. He also teaches—“puts on” would be a better term—the Humanity Series at Grayson County College, bringing in artists, lecturers and performers, sort of a modern day Chautauqua, eighteen times each semester.
“When I came out of college, I thought that I was going into public relations,” said Hicks, a Sherman native, “at the last minute, they had an opening at the junior college in public speaking, and I took that job.” That last minute job has lasted forty-three years.
“Things just began to unfold. Before long I was producing horse shows and rodeos and beauty pageants. We sent a contestant to the Miss Texas Pageant for four years.” Beauty pageants—you’ll have to admit, there’s more than a little Ziegfeld in that
Like the Follies, which was the gem of Broadway each season, the Community Series is Texoma’s marquee attraction when it comes to quality, professional performances. “It’s a non-profit, performing arts organization that’s been in existence over thirty years,” said Hicks. “The cornerstone of the series is the Sherman Symphony Orchestra. They present about five programs a year. We are the presenting arm of the symphony and the financial support is provided by another group, Sherman Musical Arts.
“The Symphony is the key. Other communities that don’t have something that constant have a more difficult time of it. We are so fortunate to have a really quality orchestra here. What we do is a little unusual for a town this size, and it’s a very nice gift for the people of this area.”
In addition to the symphony concerts, Hicks arranges for performances by other groups as part of the Community package. “Our goal is to bring world class entertainment to the people of Texoma.” he said. “So we might look at the Julliard String Quartet, the Moscow String Quartet, or the St. Louis Brass. We try to vary our programs, and even though classical music is our foundation, we reach out to other types of music because we want a larger audience base.”
Over the last few years, Hicks, and assistant Linda Williams, have attracted that “larger audience base” with presentations of Asleep at the Wheel, Michael Martin Murphey, and the Doo-Wop revival of the Coasters, the Drifters, and the Platters. Popular big names such as these usually fill almost all of Kidd-Key’s thirteen hundred seats and the house rocks, or Doo-Wops as the case may be. This season look for a Patsy Cline tribute and a Buddy Holly musical biography to pack the hall.
Most of the performances are a little more sedate, and smaller groups often perform in the more intimate setting of Wynn Chapel on the Austin College campus. AC also provides the venue for the annual Christmas Pops concert by the Sherman Symphony. They play in Richardson Auditorium, where the audience shares tables with family and friends and joins in carols at the close of the performance.
The World’s His Stage
World politics of the last twenty years have made Hicks’ job of procuring first rate talent easier, particularly in classical music field. “When the communist governments fell, it opened up a whole new avenue for presenters. Performers in those countries had not been allowed to travel, and now they have the freedom to travel worldwide. There are so many talented performers that they are not astronomically expensive. They have made the job of securing quality musical programs a little easier in the last few years.”
Another factor that helps Hicks in his search for talent is Sherman’s geographic location. Close to the strong music programs at North Texas University and SMU, the city also is on what one might call the artists’ flyway. “We’re in the middle,” Hicks said. “We’re between Dallas and Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, a short distance from Texarkana and Wichita Falls and the I-35 corridor. Many times a major show will be playing in a bigger venue, and we are able to book them in route to their next stop.”
A prime example of this approach was the Michael Martin Murphey Cowboy Christmas show several years back. Hicks had been negotiating with the popular western entertainer for a show in Sherman in the early fall, but things just didn’t work out. Then came December. “They had shows on Friday, Saturday and Monday, but that Sunday afternoon was down time. They called and said they’d be available then, and we grabbed them.”
Fortunately for Hicks and for area fans, it’s often a buyer’s market. He is constantly bombarded with pitches for one performer or another. “I’ll probably get a average of ten fliers a day,” he said, “but there’s no book on how to do it. I take my directions from the Series’ board of directors. They tell me what they’d like to see and I begin to make inquiries.” The inquiries also include trips to performance tradeshows where artists and agents try to catch the eye of the crowds of presenters.
Years of experience have given Hicks a broad catalogue of places to look for the talent he is seeking. “I begin searching from my side, and there are always people looking for a venue from the other side, and we try to get together and then negotiate. It’s a lot like horse trading. I have in mind what I can pay; they have in mind what they want. You give a little and take a little.”
Sometimes little things make the difference. “A few years ago we were negotiating with Sandra Reeves, a gospel singer out of New York,” said Hicks. “We had discussed the group she would bring, the instruments—all the details of the performance, and we were waiting on their answer when we got the question, ‘Is there fried okra in this part of the country?’ They also wanted to know if they could get catfish anywhere close.” You know how this came out. Okra we got, and catfish we got, so a southern diva in the Big Apple, longing for a taste of home, came to Sherman to sing and have lunch.
Booking the show is not putting on the show. Not until the houselights dim and the curtain rises—actually the curtain doesn’t usually rise at Kidd-Key but grant a little theatrical license here—can Hicks and Williams breathe easily. Williams often draws the duty of keeping things on an even keel. Do the performers need hotel accommodations? Do they want to eat before or after the performance? What are their likes and dislikes?
Taking care of the performers often falls to Linda Williams. “It starts with the basics,” she said. “We arrange to pick them up at the airport (usually DFW), make them comfortable at local hotels, getting them to and from the performance site, and providing food and hospitality.” It sounds simple enough, but not always.
We sent a limo to the airport to pick up the Coasters, Drifters and Platters,” recalled Williams. They were all coming in at about the same time. The Drifters and the Platters arrived first and were supposed to wait for the other group, but the Platters and the Coasters weren’t getting along too well, so they told the limo drive to leave for Sherman. I had to round another limo at the last minute to go to DFW and pick up the third group.”
Most of the time, the shows come off without a hitch, but every now and then…. “Several years ago we had pianist, a Van Cliburn Gold Medal winner, and we had to rent a Steinway from Dallas for the performance,” said Williams. “It wouldn’t fit in the backstage elevators, so it had to be carried through the front of the auditorium and set on the stage.” And that was not the only trying part of the evening
“We had already started seating people in the auditorium for the concert, when the performer, who had been about four hours late, decided he needed a little more time to warm up,” Hicks recalled. “He didn’t want anyone in the hall, so we had to empty the auditorium so he could continue warming up.” Don’t look for this fellow to come back. He has joined a Russian group and a couple of others on the “Over My Dead Body,” list tucked away in the Community Series office
But those on the OMDB list are the exception rather than the rule, and most of the time, when all the trading is done, and all the arrangements have been made, the house lights flicker and dim, the footlights come up and Joe Hicks and Linda Williams watch the curtain rise on another show—just like Flo Ziegfeld. But unlike Ziegfeld, when the curtain falls, it’s time to start all over again. Oh well, that’s show biz.
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