The Indomitable Joe Maddy
Switching gears is nothing new for Interlochen.
By Ross Boissoneau | May 30, 2020
Interlochen Center for the Arts has survived everything thrown at it: Near-financial ruin, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, even World War II. Now it’s up against an opponent no one saw coming: the novel coronavirus. And while the Interlochen Arts Festival concerts have been canceled and the campus at Interlochen Center for the Arts will not welcome thousands of young arts enthusiasts from around the globe this summer, it will continue to operate — just on the virtual plane.
The organization's smooth pivot would doubt please founder Joe Maddy, though he probably wouldn’t be surprised. After all, in 1928 he turned a resort hotel and summer camps for boys and girls in Interlochen into a world-renowned institution.
Born in 1891 to musician parents in Kansas, Maddy and his brother Harry both dropped out of high school because theirs didn't offer any music classes. He opted instead to attend Bethany College of Music and Fine Arts, then transferred to the Wichita College of Music. After performing with orchestras and in jazz clubs, and holding other musical jobs, he eventually landed the position of supervisor of music for the Ann Arbor Public Schools and head of the music department at the University of School Music, which was affiliated with the University of Michigan.
It was while he was at U of M that Maddy came up with the idea of a National High School Symphony Orchestra, comprised of outstanding high school musicians from throughout the country, and a summer home for it.
He posted an ad seeking a suitable location for the camp in the Detroit Free Press and received a response from Willis Pennington, who owned a hotel and camp in the tiny, rustic town of Interlochen. Upon reaching an agreement with Pennington, he began constructing the camp, buoyed by loans from instrument manufacturers and gifts from Carl D. Greenleaf, head of the C. G. Conn Company, and Traverse City bankers. It opened in 1928.
This is where you’d expect to read how the camp was immediately a smashing success. Which it was artistically, but it lost $40,000 that first year — the equivalent of nearly $600,000 today. To keep it going, Maddy sold debenture bonds, as well as expanding the offerings to include a college division and band students.
It was at this juncture that the Great Depression further exacerbated the financial problems, while at the same time Maddy experienced personal and professional challenges: his marriage disintegrated and he butted heads with T.P. Giddings, a mentor with whom he’d worked to establish the National High School Symphony Orchestra and then the National Music Camp.
Despite those challenges and many others, some 90 years later, Interlochen is still here. “It took 20 years to get on solid [financial] footing,” said Leo Gillis. The head of Special Collections and Archives at Interlochen Center for the Arts, Gillis said the key to its survival lay largely in Maddy’s constant search for ways to expand the camp’s reach.
“Finding ways to widen the circle, build a bigger tent … his first challenge was getting the campers so he could grow the community. The decision to make the camp bigger cost money in the short-term,” said Gillis.
Maddy was nothing if not resourceful. Beginning in 1930, the Sunday concerts of the camp orchestra were broadcast across the country by the CBS and NBC radio networks. For many years, commercial radio was a major source of outreach and income. In 1942, when many camp counselors were drafted and a strike by the American Federation of Musicians prohibited Interlochen from broadcasting on commercial networks, Maddy recruited personnel from the University of Michigan and began broadcasting from Michigan State University, without missing a concert.
Sometimes the changing circumstances led to solutions that helped the institution to flourish down the road. For example, during the Depression, renowned composer and conductor John Philip Sousa visited the camp; his concerts filled the campus’s first venue, the Interlochen Bowl. Today, of course, Interlochen is known for the many outstanding musical guests who perform there, many of whom are Interlochen alumni.
In addition, the fact there were fewer campers during the Depression years forced Maddy and company to turn to other means of financing the National Music Camp. That led to the solicitation of philanthropy, which today is another of the elements that has allowed Interlochen to thrive.
Class offerings were expanded as well, with drama in the form of radio theater beginning in 1938, art in 1939, and dance the following year. “Donors, revenue and tuition [were] a result of expanding the community,” noted Gillis.
Interlochen’s growing fame also expanded the center’s reach. Concerts at the New York World’s Fair and films helped cement its reputation, as did later shows such as the dancers and orchestra performing for President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy on the White House lawn. Appearances by famed musicians such as Van Cliburn brought crowds onto campus.
The camp still faced challenges, both external (plans to develop a nearby prison camp and a federal air force base were both defeated) and internal (staff expansion and moving staff permanently from Ann Arbor to Interlochen). A long-running dispute with the American Federation of Musicians barring members from teaching or performing at Interlochen was finally resolved in 1957.
One of Maddy’s long-held ambitions was to establish an arts school outside of the summer camp season. That dream became a reality in 1962. Today the Interlochen Arts Academy is the “off-season” arm of Interlochen Center for the Arts, while Interlochen Arts Camp (formerly the National Music Camp, so renamed in 1991) annually hosts 3,000 students.
That is, it did until this year. Through Maddy’s unexpected death in 1966 and a succession of presidents since then, Interlochen has always welcomed the summer campers. Now, the threat posed by the pandemic has forced Interlochen to abandon its planned summer camp season for the first time ever. Instead, like so many other institutions, it will be pivoting to the digital world, offering a virtual camp.
Current Interlochen President Trey Devey acknowledged the restrictions imposed by the novel coronavirus have changed the way the institution will provide its educational offerings. But he sees positives coming out of this situation as they did in previous challenges. “Institutional resilience has been a hallmark of Interlochen. In 90 years it’s seen ups and downs, and Interlochen has always found a way,” he said.
That way this summer will be through the use of the worldwide connectivity offered by the internet. “One thing that’s really helpful … is we’ve been building our capabilities for online instruction. We’re using tools like Zoom but also specific technology. Canvas is the main one,” said Devey, referring to the open distance-learning platform used by many schools across the country.
“It’s extraordinarily challenging for all arts and educational institutions, and we’re a combination,” Devey said. “We have an amazing IT team, and that’s helped us pivot.”
Profits from the summer concerts went toward scholarship funding, which means that funding will take a significant hit. “The loss of Interlochen Presents and the impact on revenue … it will be a steep climb. It will be a challenge for us,” Devey acknowledged.
Yet in the next breath, he guaranteed Interlochen would continue to flourish. “Absolutely. We’re going to get through this. [Interlochen] has weathered storms, " he said. “We’re focused on our fall re-entry plan. We have two task forces — a COVID-19 team from around the world and a campus health team,” he said. The two teams have been working to develop a plan for reopening in the fall, which Devey said he’s confident will happen.
Whatever its ultimate shape, Devey said the program, as always, will be focused on the students. Through them it will serve the community of Interlochen, both the local community and those connected with the institution, wherever they may be. Just as Maddy would have wanted.
**Photo at top, of Maddy at the IAA groundbreaking ceremony in 1961, is courtesy of ARTICA, the Archives of Interlochen Center for the Arts.