Interview: Michael Jenkins
President of Dallas Summer Musicals
Founder of Leisure and Recreational Concepts
© The Flash List | September 19, 2012
Michael Jenkins has stories. Lots of them.
President of Dallas Summer Musicals and founder of the amusement park design company Leisure and Recreational Concepts, he’s traveled the world, been on boards for the Ice Capades and Harlem Globetrotters, learned amusement park management directly from Walt and Roy Disney, and even had a legitimate chance to run away with the circus when he suggested to John Ringling a new, improved business strategy.
He’s eaten soup containing live fish at the Nigerian Federal Palace, scuba-dived with Trammell Crow while yachting to Guatemala, trekked through the jungle to confer with a tribal chieftain, and was once offered 100 stolen motorbikes from an actual pirate who “looked like he came from central casting.” He’s also been personal friends with celebrities like Carol Channing, Phyllis Diller, Jerry Lewis, Cathy Rigby, Barry Williams, Tony Curtis, Ann Margaret, Rich Little, and many more.
After reading his book, Playbills and Popcorn, The Flash List sat down with Michael in his office at the Music Hall at Fair Park to discuss his fascinating life and his active involvement in the Dallas community. Interested in architecture and stage design from a young age, Michael showed us a framed drawing that had just been delivered to him the day before. Thought lost until recently, it was an intricate, cross section pencil drafting of a multi-level theater design (including air conditioning ducts and all) that Michael had rendered himself in 1949 when he was just eight years old. Born and raised in Dallas (and obviously talented beyond his years), Jenkins won a scholarship which afforded him an internship doing elementary tasks during the building of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek. That then took him out to Six Flags with Angus Wynne who gave him a job drafting the Great Southwest Industrial District.
Jenkins’ very first job, however, was working as an usher at the Music Hall under the leadership of Charles Meeker, the original producer of Dallas Summer Musicals. After Meeker resigned to produce shows at the then new Six Flags Over Texas, Tom Hughes took the helm for some years, and then Michael Jenkins became the third of only three men to guide DSM through its legendary history.
TFL: How did your work with Charles Meeker prepare you for your future career?
MJ: He was the first producer of the Musicals; and obviously he had the two assistants, Tom Hughes who had just come back from the Korean War and myself. He called me an assistant; I was really a gopher. But a number of things he did. He believed very much in customer service … he put me in charge in 1959 of coordinating [a show with the famous French actor/singer Maurice Chevalier]. Rather than opening on a Tuesday, we were opening on a Monday night because we were paying him so much money we weren’t sure we could even break even. On that afternoon, there was a torrential rainstorm, I mean terrible. And I went back to his dressing room and knocked on the door. I was a really young kid then. I said, “Mr. Chevalier, when you’re ready to go on, I’m going to turn the lights in the theater down to half and close all the doors so that people coming in late will not disturb your opening number.” And he said, “No, I’d like for you to leave the lights up and the doors open.” And I protested; and he said, “No, leave the doors open and the lights up.” And then, I can remember this as if it happened yesterday, with his left hand on my right shoulder, he gently pressed me down into a seat there in his dressing room and he said, “You know, people are going to be late because of the weather. People probably have purchased a ticket they could not afford to buy to come see me. It’s not about me; it’s about them.” And he said, “I wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to perform for them. It’s the audience that’s important, not me.” And that left a great impression on me.
Many, many years later, I’m walking down the main street of Paris France; it’s a Monday, and it started to rain torrential rain. We ran up under a red canopy awning not knowing what it was; we went in, and it was a restaurant. I said, “We don’t have a reservation, but could we come in out of the rain?” And the Maitre d’ said, “Well, I only have one table and it’s a banquette.” My friend had a bad back, so I said, “I’ll sit in the banquette.” As I sat down with my back against the wall, my friend facing me said, “You’re not going to believe this … look over your right shoulder.” Remember it was a Monday when I first met Maurice Chevalier, it was raining, and he gently pressed me down on my right shoulder. I look around, and on the wall was a plaque that said this was the personal table of Maurice Chevalier.
So, my point is, Meeker gave me that opportunity; he trained me in customer service. Charlie Meeker had this poem that went like this:
A lion and a tiger once drank beside a pool.
Please tell me, said the tiger to the lion, why you roar like a fool.
Well, I make this noise to prove I’m king of beasts.
A small rabbit heard them talking and he ran home like a streak.
He thought he would try the lion’s great roar, but his roar was just a little squeak.
A wolf came to investigate and had dinner in the woods.
So before you advertise my friend, be sure you have the goods.
TFL: In 1994, you unexpectedly took the reins of Dallas Summer Musicals and have been leading the theater ever since. How did it come about that you have stayed?
MJ: In late ’93, and early ’94, we were master planning the World’s Fair in Seville, Spain. [Suddenly called to return home for a meeting of the executive committee of Dallas Summer Musicals,] ... they explain that [former DSM President] Tom Hughes has passed away, all contracts have expired, and there are no shows for next season. This was December 1st, and we were opening in May … you just can’t do a season in six months; it’s impossible. And they said, “You’re the only one who knows how to do this. We’re doctors and lawyers and bankers, and we’ll help you; but we don’t know how to negotiate or find these shows. Well, at that time, we were swamped at LARC with projects going on; I think it was like 28 or 30. I said, “Well hey, I’m busy. I can’t take care of everything we’re doing right now.” … “We will have to close the Musicals,” that was what they said. I said, “Well, that can’t happen; that was my first job!” So I said, “OK, I’ll do it for one year.” I had no clue how I was going to do this, but I didn’t want the Musicals to close. And I said, “That’ll give you time to look for someone.”
So I came over here, and I don’t know how this happened, but Richard Burton’s contract was in the Hello Dolly file, and Carol Channing’s agreement was in the Man of La Mancha file. And it was just a big mess … we took all the files and emptied them, and laid them out on the floor, and re-put them back together; and I remember being here one night until 1:30 in the morning doing that, and one night in ’95 stayed here and the sun was coming up and I was still trying to figure out how to put this thing back together. But we did, and with a lot of help. So there were no shows, and I remember Jekyll and Hyde wanted to come to Dallas but … they sent the show to Tempe, Arizona. So kind of like the football draft, I negotiated for them to give me Jekyll and Hyde and I would give them Cinderella and Singing in the Rain in a future year, which we did. And that’s kind of how we put the season together.
I didn’t know how to market the shows, honestly. I only knew what I knew from learning from doing it wrong at Six Flags. So we put twinkle lights up in the trees and got some big light poles out in the parking lot to brighten it up and we made 55 changes that year … but our whole philosophy, my philosophy and the company, is about family entertainment. We try to have a diversified grouping of shows that appeals to all people.
TFL: How do you select shows and what is the process of presenting and/or producing a show?
MJ: It’s a long process; sometimes it takes three or four years. We’re working on a number of them right now. All About Bette is a one woman show that will not be here but will be in New York and it’s about Bette Davis and it’s written by Camilla Carr. It’s a wonderful story of Bette Davis’ life and it’s performed by a fabulous actress I want to introduce to Broadway because I know she’ll become an instant star when she’s in New York. Her name is Morgana Shaw; she’s a local actress and she’s wonderful. And once she opens in New York in this show, we’ll probably never see her back in Dallas again. She deserves to do this. She is so good, that three minutes into the show you’ll think, “That is Bette Davis.”
The most amazing show (I hate to use that word) is a show that we have already committed to called Amazing Grace about John Newton. The song “Amazing Grace”, do you know how it was written? We have all the rights to this now, all signed, and we have a co-producer Carolyn Copeland. It’s 12.8 million dollars; it’s a huge show. It’s not a show that’s colorful with lots of tap dancing; it’s more of a Les Mis type show. It’s dark; but the story is fabulous, and it’s all true. Briefly, I’ll tell you that John Newton’s mother died when he was three years old and a slave named Thomas took care of him and raised him. His father was in the king’s court in London, and as he grew up he became a drinker, gambler, womanizer, mean-spirited person whose business was selling slaves … he was a mean, horrible person; but he had an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend. And a naval admiral wanted that girlfriend, so contrived a way to get John in the British Navy and sail him away. His father could’ve stopped it, but his father thought it would be good for him to get some order in his life. So the naval admiral pursued the girl who didn’t care for him. John was shipped away; and in a storm at sea, the ship broke up; and he and Thomas, his slave, hung onto part of the ship that was floating and got themselves to an island. This island had a tribe that had a queen who wanted his golden buttons on his coat. She thought that those were gold and that he must be wealthy to wear such clothes. She had been briefly educated by a missionary … this is a true story … she wrote a letter that was hard to decipher to King George that she wanted 5,000 pounds and those gold buttons … the father, who was in King George’s court, realized that was his son because of the way she explained the uniform and the slave. So King George gave him a ship to go get his son, and he told the girl that he thought John was still alive. He got to the island, and the queen thought he was coming to give the money, but he wasn’t. He was coming to get his son. There was an attack, and the father was shot, and he lived for seven days and then he died. And John Newton, who hated his father for not intervening and keeping him out of the navy, began to realize that his father truly did love him or he wouldn’t have come to get him. Since John would not give the queen his buttons, she took his slave Thomas away and sent him to another island. But if he had given his buttons, the slave could’ve stayed; so the slave became extremely angry with John because he’d raised him since he was a baby. It was at that time, with his father and with Thomas gone, that he began to repent. Then there was an uprising within the tribe, and the queen was killed. Some of the tribe people went with John on the ship. He set sail then to this island with part of the tribe’s people who had no clue how to sail, and they got to this other island which was nearby and Thomas wouldn’t come back with him. And John apologized and sat down and said he was going to wait for three days. He sat down on the sand on the shore early one morning and wrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace.” When you know those lyrics, you’ll understand how it fits with what he wrote. Thomas decided to come back, they made up, went back to England, he married the girl. True story. So we’re going to make this into an epic hopefully.
TFL: What do the theater business and the amusement park business have in common?
MJ: They have a lot in common. We have a research department at LARC that researches trends in entertainment. All kinds of trends: where people are travelling, what they want to see, what they want to do. There are 5,000 people turning 65 every 24 hours in this country. Those are people that have the interest in theater, they have the money to spend on theater, but they don’t want to be out at night. So that’s why we added a Thursday matinee, which is now almost virtually sold out. Because of the relationship, the Musicals are able to use a lot of the research of LARC and the theme park industry.
TFL: Your company, Leisure and Recreational Concepts (LARC), developed the first amusement park in Nigeria, built the very first miniature golf course in China, and even introduced Kuwait to the Old West by way of a water park. In those scenarios, what do you find to be the differences and similarities between people around the world?
MJ: In Nigeria, the largest problem we had there was in training people to wait in line, not jump over the fence from wherever they were. The second thing would be that the adults ride the children’s rides; and if they like them, then they let their children ride them. And in Africa also … there’s a lot of superstition. We had a car ride that went through a tunnel and out the other side. But they would ride to the tunnel and jump out and run around and wait for the car to come out, and jump back on. There was some rumor that the Americans were inside the tunnel waiting to club them (which was obviously not true), so we had to cut skylights in the tunnel … so they could see light and would stay in their cars.
We put up the first Ferris wheel ever in Africa and told them to be out at 7:00 in the morning and we’d teach them how to operate it. We went out there, and they were already up in it. They didn’t know it turned. We had to blow a big whistle and get everybody down. They were shocked that it turned; they didn’t know. So it’s a lot of training.
The Chinese? No problem waiting in line. In fact, I’ll tell you, many years ago I went to a town in China, and they had just built a four-story hotel. They were so proud of it, and it had an escalator that went from the main floor to what we would think of as the mezzanine (second floor). One Saturday morning about 5:00, I get up; it’s drizzling. I look out, and I see a line of people coming into this hotel. I couldn’t see the end of the line; it must’ve gone at least four blocks. And I thought, “First of all, all those people can’t get in this building. Second of all, why are they coming into this building?” So I got up real quick, dressed, and went down to see what this was all about. Well, to my surprise, on Saturday in this town in this new building, they could ride this new escalator. So they would go up the escalator, down the escalator, and then leave or go back and get in line again. Four blocks long; because they had never seen an escalator at that time.
TFL: How did it come about that several episodes of the 1960’s television show The Banana Splits were filmed at Six Flags?
MJ: It was a pretty simple thing, really; Sid and Marty Krofft were the puppeteers. We were next door to them in the New York World’s Fair. They had a show called Les Poupées de Paris; it was a French can-can puppet show … and they had this idea, because they had Pufnstuf, and The Banana Splits was another group that they were trying to buy. So they came to us and asked, “Could that be filmed in the park?” Actually, part of it was filmed outside and part of it was filmed in the puppet theater. If you remember the first Sid and Marty Krofft puppet show [at Six Flags], at the very end, we had a little elevator on the front of the stage (it was about two foot square; no one even knew what it was) and all these marionettes with the strings. All of the sudden, the one that was the little gorilla breaks his strings, steps on that, goes out, and runs out into the audience. It was a human, a dwarf. And the audience went absolutely nutcase and fled from the building! We had to change the story; it just scared everyone.
TFL: Who found the guys that would stand on the high platforms and dive into what seemed basically like a glass of water as in the Bugs Bunny cartoons?
MJ: We built a pool at Six Flags and put the dolphin show in, and then Ralph Quinlan came to me about three years later and said “What if we have a high diving act in that pool? … I found some guys that are divers and they’ve been training to dive a little higher and a little higher and a little higher. They’re up to 80 feet.” How deep does the water have to be? I’m thinking 40 feet, and Ralph says, “Nine feet; maybe eight.” I’m thinking, “You’re crazy!” And then they lit themselves on fire and dived into the water, so that was a second show, but it was all … through Ralph Quinlan; he put the show together.
TFL: What drives you and keeps you going?
MJ: [Laughs]. I don’t know really; probably just craziness. I think it’s two things, really. When I’m bored, I usually get in trouble. But the other thing, and probably most important, I really like a challenge. I like the impossible. If I were a football player, I would be worthless during the game until the last minute. If we were behind, that’s when my adrenaline would kick in.
TFL: What is the most important lesson you’ve ever learned?
MJ: I would say that people want to be individuals; they don’t want to be numbers. People want to be treated as individuals. People want respect and courtesy, and you have a commitment to give it to them in a clean-cut, wholesome, family atmosphere whether it’s in a park or sitting in a theater. You have to exceed people’s expectations. I think that’s the key. You have to exceed people’s expectations. And their expectations are high because they see everything in the movies and they see everything on television, so it’s not like they’re uninformed. They come to see a show, and they think they know what they’re going to see. It has to be better than what they thought they were going to see.
Michael Jenkins lives as he believes. During this interview, he asked us (with sincere interest) just as many questions about ourselves as we asked of him (as if he had no other place in the world to be). He’s a genuinely friendly, fascinating man with a wealth of knowledge about a wide variety of topics, and a true asset to Dallas that we are fortunate to have. When you go see a show at Dallas Summer Musicals, there’s a very good chance you’ll spot him walking around before the performance chatting with old friends and new acquaintances. So stop by to shake his hand and say hello; he just might tell you a story!
To learn more about Michael Jenkins and read his adventures for yourself, get his book Playbills and Popcorn at http://www.amazon.com/Playbills-And-Popcorn.