Let Him Entertain You

Why producer Charles Duggan is staging the biggest holiday spectacular Austin's ever seen

Let Him Entertain You
Photo by John Anderson

Charles Duggan probably doesn't want me telling you this, but for his upcoming seasonal spectacular at the Long Center, he plans to make it snow inside Dell Hall. And not just on the stage, but all over the audience.

That's the kind of audacious theatrical effect that you wouldn't expect outside of Radio City Music Hall. Or that maybe you thought went away with the Broadway extravaganzas of Flo Ziegfeld and Billy Rose 60 years ago. But as we shift from the first decade of the 21st century to the second, Austin-based producer Duggan is giving his hometown a heapin' helping of good old-fashioned stage spectacle with the production he's dubbed A Texas Christmas Carol. We're talking a holiday variety show that manages to pack into a mere two hours tap-dancing Christmas trees, the March of the Toys, a Rockette-style kick line, the Posada, "Jingle Bells" performed on 1,500 kazoos, a sing-along "Hallelujah Chorus," a live Frosty the Snowman (who melts), "O Holy Night" with an opera chorus, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" with a gospel quintet, a handbell choir, a string quartet, a brass quintet, 20 classical guitarists, and a version of The Nutcracker that clocks in at nine minutes flat. Oh yes, and that cherry on this supersized sundae, the aforementioned snowfall.

And as if it weren't enough that this production manages to jam so much entertainment under one roof, it's also convening a veritable galaxy of Austin performing artists to present it: Tish Hinojosa; the Biscuit Brothers; Tosca String Quartet; jazz vocalist Kat Edmonson; Butler School of Music professor of piano Anton Nel; dancers from Ballet Austin and Tapestry Dance Company; singers from Austin Lyric Opera; ALO concertmaster Stanislav Pronin; Matthew Hinsley and guitarists from Austin Classical Guitar Society; the River City Brass Quintet; Zach Theatre leading lady Jill Blackwood; gospel singers Dorothy Mays Clark, Tim Curry, Courtney Sanchez, Rod Sanford, and Janis Stinson; the Bowie High School Silver Stars; Zach Theatre's Showstoppers; the St. Martin's Ringers; and KVUE chief meteorologist Mark Murray.

Now, apart from the odd gala such as the grand opening of the Long Center, when do you see that kind of an all-star cast on a single stage these days, a congregation of high-wattage performers that cuts across the disciplines of dance, theatre, and music – and across so many genres of music at that: jazz, gospel, opera, folk, classical? And who puts together that kind of show anymore – not just in Austin but anywhere? Back in the early part of the last century, variety shows thrived, and a certain breed of producer could build his name and fortune on assembling the biggest, glitziest, most star-studded spectacle a stage could hold. But it's been 77 years since Ziegfeld ascended to that Great Balcony in the Sky and almost that many since Rose put the circus on Broadway in Rodgers and Hart's Jumbo (or had the original 4,000-seat Casa Mañana built for the Fort Worth Frontier Days, for that matter). As for a gutsy impresario such as Sol Hurok or a flashy theatrical producer such as David Merrick, well, nowadays you're lucky to find someone who remembers them, much less someone able to fill their showman's shoes. That Duggan can, and does, makes him rather an anomaly in the modern world: a producer of the old school, with a flair for the theatrical and a sense of spectacle, not to mention strong instincts for what works on stage and, maybe most importantly, what the audience wants.

Show Biz 101

Duggan comes by his old-school theatre credentials honestly. He grew up with a passion for the stage, and, on graduating from Stanford University in 1975, he gave himself two years for a final fling on the boards. That led to him being cast in touring shows that starred some of the leading ladies of the previous generation – Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Ethel Merman – and left him with an indelible sense of what true stars of that era were like. And when he left Georgetown University Law Center with a degree and started practicing corporate, real estate, and entertainment law in San Francisco, it led to him gaining some clients from the connections made through those shows. About that time, Duggan also found a mentor in Arnold Saint Subber, the man credited with hatching the idea for Kiss Me, Kate (after stage-managing a production of The Taming of the Shrew starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) and who co-produced its original Broadway run, as well as produced on Broadway William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, a Mike Nichols-directed revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes with Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott, and seven of Neil Simon's biggest hits, including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and Plaza Suite. While Duggan was still in his late 20s, Saint Subber invited him to co-produce Patrick Meyers' play K2 on Broadway. The mountain-climbing drama didn't last three months in New York, but it picked up a Tony Award for Ming Cho Lee's set, and, more significantly, it gave Duggan a taste for producing and a new direction in life.

From that point, Duggan set out to follow in Saint Subber's footsteps. Back in San Francisco, he had obtained the Marines' Memorial Theatre in July 1982 and made the 640-seat venue his base of operations. One of his first hits there was Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, which ran long enough to star in succession Lynn Redgrave, Cloris Leachman, and Peggy Cass. He went back to Broadway in 1992 with a revival of Private Lives toplined by Joan Collins and again the following year with Jonathan Tolins' topical drama The Twilight of the Golds, which was later made into a film for Showtime with Garry Marshall, Faye Dunaway, and Brendan Fraser. He shepherded another Tolins drama, If Memory Serves, to New York with Elizabeth Ashley in the lead, in 1999 and mounted a London run of the one-man show Jeeves Takes Charge with Edward Duke before that actor's untimely death. Elsewhere and at various times, Duggan has also worked with everyone from Julie Harris and Sir Ian McKellen to Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar to Peggy Lee and Barbara Cook to Jose Greco. And, of course, on the home front, he's best known as the producer of Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White and Tuna with the original creative team of Joe Sears and Jaston Williams for a quarter of a century. It was Duggan's connection to Tuna that led him in 1992 to relocate to Austin, where he's been intimately involved in several projects, most notably Austin Musical Theatre, which he helped get off the ground in 1997 and tried to throw a lifeline to when it was drowning in red ink seven years later, and Actors Repertory of Texas, the short-lived professional theatre company created in partnership with the University of Texas' Department of Theatre & Dance.

Judging by his 27 years in the business of show, Duggan has learned his lessons well. For instance, every penny counts. Contrary to the popular notion of a producer throwing buckets of cash at an extravaganza like his holiday show, Duggan opens the first production meeting for A Texas Christmas Carol by telling his team that the only place he could rent a large turntable for the stage was too expensive, so it's out. All of the set changes will now be done with lighting and scrims. Later, in referring to the 13,000 kazoos that will be handed out to audience members for "Jingle Bells," he notes that he ordered them from China, because they only cost 13 cents apiece there rather than the 75 cents it would cost from another source. That thriftiness walks hand in hand with the lesson that "it's not worth doing if you don't get butts in seats." Duggan has been around the block enough times to know that the week between Christmas and New Year's is a notoriously tough sell. That's why he's devoted a full year to planning the project and developing an audience. The better part of the spring he spent pursuing a unique marketing strategy: Getting local charities to help market the show to their constituencies for a portion of the ticket sales; for every ticket you buy on behalf of, say, the Austin Children's Shelter, the shelter gets 20% of the price as a donation. In addition, he's dedicated specific performances to benefit specific charities, creating even more of a draw among nonprofit supporters and developing the idea of the show as both entertaining and beneficial to the community at large.

Behind the Curtain

His dedication to his job and attention to detail have certainly paid off for Duggan. If you want to know what built Tuna into a multimillion-dollar empire and got Williams and Sears on Broadway 15 years ago or what made a going concern of the Marines' Memorial Theatre for more than 20 years or how he was able to step in as an angel for Austin Musical Theatre in its hour of need or partner with a university on a professional venture, those old-school virtues are where to find your answer.

"I think Charles is successful because of his amazing insight and uncanny knowledge of every aspect of production – artistic, financial, technical, marketing. He understands every facet of this business and how one area impacts the rest," says Carla McQueen, who has served as company manager, producing associate, and general manager of the Greater Tuna Corporation through the years. "He is more 'hands on' than anyone I've ever worked with. That's not to say that he doesn't trust his staff to do the job; it is more that he invariably has an idea or approach that we had not thought of. In my nearly 19 years working with him, I can't tell you how often I've had one of those 'Why didn't I think of that?' moments!"

"He has no fear," adds Bill Sheffield, who has stage-managed shows for Duggan for ages and is pulling the same duty on A Texas Christmas Carol. "When he has a vision for a production, he will try anything and talk to anyone about it. He will coddle, coerce, cajole, caress, coax, and will always carry on to get the best show he can."

Paul Beutel can attest to that. The managing director of the Long Center was skeptical about at least one aspect of A Texas Christmas Carol, but Duggan wouldn't let go. "I was very resistant to the idea of 'snowfall' in Dell Hall for one of the show's special effects," he says. "Not to give away the surprise, but Charles arranged for a demonstration of the effect, and I and the staff were won over. Often, when faced with resistance or push-back from someone involved in the process, Charles' low-key charm can be very persuasive."

That's not to say that Duggan always gets his way or comes out on top. He confesses to breaking the first rule of producing – "I do put my own money in a show" – which has sometimes led to painful losses. That production of Private Lives with Joan Collins, which included an 11-city national tour? It saddled Duggan with a million-dollar debt that took him a year and a half to pay off. Actors Repertory of Texas? Its splashy debut with an unproduced early play by Tennessee Williams took a bath, as they say in Variety, and the venture only managed to mount a production of Love Letters with Stacy Keach and Collins again before vanishing altogether. And despite Duggan's infusions of cash and savvy, Austin Musical Theatre went under. These are the kinds of hits that would drive many another producer out of show biz. But Duggan perseveres. Why?

According to Beutel, "Charles is genuinely driven by passion, whereas some commercial producers seem to be driven more by profit-motive. He's created A Texas Christmas Carol because he loves the variety-show format, he wants to showcase Austin talent, and with the marketing plan he devised that returns a portion of ticket sales to area nonprofits, he wants to help those organizations who play a role in making Austin such a remarkable, caring community."

Duggan's colleagues McQueen and Sheffield have a simpler take on it: He just loves entertaining people. "Whether it's a small dinner party he's hosting or a full-blown Long Center production," says Sheffield, "he wants people to have a great time."

Let Him Entertain You

The man himself would not disagree. "Really, honestly, it's standing in the back of the theatre and hearing the audience," says Duggan. "With Tuna, it was hearing them laugh; with The Twilight of the Golds, it was hearing them gasp." And with A Texas Christmas Carol, it will no doubt be some combination of squeals of delight and sighs of contentment.

Being a showman is in Duggan's blood. As another old-school man of the theatre, Irving Berlin, put it:

"Even with a turkey that you know will fold

You may be stranded out in the cold

Still, you wouldn't trade it for a sack o' gold

Let's go on with the show

Let's go on with the show!"

A Texas Christmas Carol runs Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 29 & 30, 7:30pm; Friday and Saturday, Jan. 1 & 2, 2 & 7:30pm; and Sunday, Jan. 3, 1 & 6pm, at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 474-5664 or visit www.thelongcenter.org.


'A Texas Christmas Carol'

Each performance of A Texas Christmas Carol features a special guest artist or artists and benefits a specific area charity or charities. Here is the schedule for both.

Tuesday, Dec. 29, 7:30pm: Anton Nel, Stephanie Chen (Dell Children's Medical Center)

Wednesday, Dec. 30, 7:30pm: Kat Edmonson (Austin Children's Shelter)

Friday, Jan. 1, 2pm: Tish Hinojosa, Felipe and Evangelina Gonzales (Con Mi Madre, Junior League of Austin)

Friday, Jan. 1, 7:30pm: Tish Hinojosa, Felipe and Evangelina Gonzales (Center for Child Protection, Autism Speaks)

Saturday, Jan. 2, 2pm: Matthew Hinsley, Austin Classical Guitar Society (Helping Hand Home for Children)

Saturday, Jan. 2, 7:30pm: Anton Nel, Stanislav Pronin (Any Baby Can, Ronald McDonald House)

Sunday, Jan. 3, 1pm: Anton Nel (St. David's Foundation)

Sunday, Jan. 3, 6pm: Matthew Hinsley, Austin Classical Guitar Society (Make-a-Wish Foundation)

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Charles Duggan, A Texas Christmas Carol, Greater Tuna, Austin Musical Theatre, Actors Repertory of Texas, Paul Beutel, Carla McQueen, Bill Sheffield, Long Center for the Performing Arts

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