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Reviewed by:
  • Play by Play: Phoenix and Building the Herberger Theater
  • John Akers
Play by Play: Phoenix and Building the Herberger Theater. By Elizabeth B. Murfee and Jack L. August Jr. (Fort Worth: TCU Press, 2010. Pp. 192. Color and b&w photographs, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 9780875654102, $35.00 cloth).

Ostensibly this book commemorates the twentieth anniversary of the completion of the Herberger Theater in Phoenix. As the title suggests, however, it is as much an urban history as an institutional history. In describing how the three-theater performing arts center provided much-needed space for Phoenix’s nascent cultural scene, the authors delineate the efforts of dedicated individuals to establish arts advocacy organizations and create a supportive environment for the arts in Phoenix and the state. Further, the authors portray how the struggle to locate the theater in Phoenix’s long-suffering downtown sparked sustained revitalization in the city center.

Despite rich details in certain contextual information, the book strangely does not connect the theater to prior or subsequent development of other performing arts centers in the region. Additionally, the book’s organization and stated purpose of tracing Phoenix’s cultural history is distracted by disproportionate coverage of the Arizona Theater Company (ATC), one of the theater’s three resident companies. Although the ATC performs in Phoenix, its creative development takes place in Tucson at the company’s headquarters. In describing the constraints of the theater as a shared venue, the authors seem to present a veiled criticism of the theater for being a place to just present rather than create the arts. The ATC’s inclusion also leads to a digressive and out-of-place chapter about the renovation of the Temple of Art and Music, ATC’s headquarters.

These complaints aside, the book provides a useful contribution to the recent history of Phoenix. The financing and construction of the theater took place over the course of the 1980s, a decade of considerable political and financial transitions [End Page 231] for Phoenix. While historical surveys of Phoenix and Arizona touch on these transitions, here the authors richly detail this backdrop and provide information not captured elsewhere.

The driving force behind the theater, Richard Mallery, was a lawyer from a prominent local firm who belonged to an influential group of business leaders called the Phoenix 40. Formed in 1975, the Phoenix 40 succeeded a similar group of leaders that had guided Phoenix’s growth and politics since the 1940s. By the end of the 1980s, however, political and financial shakeups diluted the Phoenix 40’s influence. A movement for broader citizen participation gained traction at city hall. Moreover, the savings-and-loan industry collapse stripped the Phoenix 40 of several influential members and consequently weakened the ability of the theater to raise funds. The financial crisis spectacularly weakened the state’s economy and initiated the takeover of all major state banks by national companies.

The book also traces the transition of Phoenix’s downtown, or perhaps more fittingly, the outright invention of a place abandoned by shoppers who had flocked to new retail centers at the region’s edges since the 1950s. The 1980s started with the possibility of abandoning the downtown altogether but ended with the opening of the theater. Within a few years the theater triggered new downtown retail complexes, museums, and even a baseball stadium.

The authors describe these changes in chronological chapters. The book starts with background on Phoenix and ends with commentary about the theater and the Phoenix arts scene since the opening. The very detailed notes section, one of the real values of this book, uses a variety of sources such as personal papers, organization minutes, reports, as well as fifty interviews collected over nearly fifteen years. The timing of the book, in an economic crisis as severe as the one in the 1980s, will cause readers to reflect on the challenges any city faces in building a supportive economy and climate for civic culture. [End Page 232]

John Akers
Glendale, Arizona


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pp. 231-232
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