BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE Back in the 20th century, the capacity to present classical music concerts free-of-charge in publicly-owned civic spaces under starry summer skies was one of the primary determinants of a municipality”s level of civility. It’s what separated us sophisticated city folk from the tin-eared heathens of podunk. Usually this gratis dispensation of high culture to the lumpen proletariat was the providence of an impresario who was able to move heaven and Earth and marshal the resources of both City Hall and the swells that made it all possible. In Philadelphia, it was one Frederic R. Mann, aka Freddy Mann — a self-made multi-millionaire who amassed his fortune in his 20s with a chain of cardboard box factories — that played that role in the city’s cultural life. A perpetually formal man with a gruff demeanor and a stogie forever clenched between his bicuspids, Freddy Mann was, by all accounts, a well-connected, big-hearted grouch whose savage beast was tamed by the sonorous musics of the pre-rock n’ roll era: classical, opera, Broadway scores. And Mann wanted to share that love.
He hatched a plan for a free classical music series that was jointly funded by the city and private contributors, both large and small. During the nearly 50 years this arrangement was in place, it is estimated that more than six million free tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts were given out to the general public. ”I didn’t inherit a fortune to distribute,” Mann said in 1983. ”This is my hard-earned money I give out. You know the Hebrew word for charity is ‘tzedakah,’ which really means justice. If you live opulently you have to share with the less fortunate. If I eat, somebody else has to eat.”
For nearly 40 years, Freddy Mann curated a star-studded summer concert series at the roofless Robin Hood Dell in East Fairmount Park, where performances were routinely foreshortened by the cruel impetuousness of Mother Nature. By the early 70s, he’d finally convinced the city to build a new, 14,000 seat state-of-the art amphitheater, across the river on a grassy bluff in West Fairmount Park, which would be shielded from the elements by a vast cedar dome and serve at the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer home. When Robin Hood Dell West, as it was known for its first year of operation, opened in the summer of 1976, those buzz-killing, lightning-streaked stampedes for the parking lot at the first crack of thunder became a thing of the past.
In 1979, the Robin Hood Dell West was re-named the Mann Music Center. While the venue thrived under Mann’s leadership, his death in 1987 at the age of 83 marked the onset of a period of drift and decline for the Mann Music Center. The years that followed would see the venue wither in the face of crushing debt, declining audience share and stiff corporate competition, nearly going extinct by the turn of the century. New management re-invented the mission and methods of the venue and pulled the Mann back from the abyss. In the last decade it has experienced something of a renaissance with a re-branded rep as a hot-ticket destination for its blend of high-end indie-rock, craft beer, fine dining and breathtaking views of the city skyline. This year, as it celebrates 75 years of public service, The Mann appears destined to be a permanent and beloved fixture of the city’s cultural life. Because on this we can all agree: There are precious few life’s pleasures more sublime than the splendor of laying in the grass with your honey on a blanket with a bottle of wine under the heavens while music, sweet music takes wing on the summer wind. MORE