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AADL Talks to Jamie Mistry

Wed, 05/29/2013 - 2:48pm

When: May 29, 2013

A long-time supporter of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Jamie Mistry is proud to help celebrate its 30th season in 2013. He started as a volunteer and through the years, has taken on many roles, including as Chair of the Board of Directors. He remembers the challenges of funding an arts organization during hard times, and the sensitivity necessary in programming to remain sustainable.

These days he remains a community member of the Festival and looks forward to bringing his family to yet another A2SF season.

 

 

Transcript

  • [00:00:10.43] [MUSIC] JACKIE: In this episode, AADL talks to Jamie Mistry a local businessmen who has been a longtime supporter of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. First as a volunteer, an employee, and then a board member. He speaks of the many highlights in the course of his tenure, and the challenges an arts organization like the festival faces through the years.
  • [00:00:34.88] The Ann Arbor Summer Festival celebrates its 30th season in 2013. For more information about the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, go to a2sf.org.
  • [00:00:59.59] AMY NESBITT: To me, you have a really unique connection with the festival, specifically the ways in which you were first introduced to the festival, your involvement, both as a student, if I'm recalling correctly.
  • [00:01:11.67] JAMIE MISTRY: That's right, that's right. The early days, yeah. My early days.
  • [00:01:15.15] AMY NESBITT: And then as a staff member.
  • [00:01:16.58] JAMIE MISTRY: Yes.
  • [00:01:16.95] AMY NESBITT: And then later as a board member, and then now as a society member, which in summer festival terms, that's a former board member who's still very, very involved with the festival. And so maybe if you could sort of speak to those elements.
  • [00:01:32.14] JAMIE MISTRY: Absolutely.
  • [00:01:32.79] AMY NESBITT: And how you connected with the festival.
  • [00:01:34.40] JAMIE MISTRY: Sure, sure. My history is a little bit unique, I think, in that I started out many years ago with the festival when I was a student in Michigan back in the late, very, very late '80s. And I came to the festival as an intern, really, and went on to do various roles, mostly in the marketing arena. And I programmed the movies and entertainment for several years at the Top of the Park.
  • [00:02:03.17] And this is back in the very, very early days, and of course my history with the festival has run up through the present day, where my now two young, still young, and very, very young when they first met the festival, daughters have explored and enjoyed the festival through their entire lives, really. So in fact, it's funny. My daughter Jillian just gave a little presentation on the festival, and she opened it in her classroom.
  • [00:02:29.31] She opened it by talking about how she's grown up with the festival, and she doesn't remember a year when she wasn't at the festival, because really, there hasn't been a year when she wasn't at the festival. So yes, my experience with the festival and my perspective is a little bit different than some.
  • [00:02:49.02] In the early days, I was indeed as an intern, I saw sort of the early onset of the festival, and had the privilege of meeting some of the founders, and in fact spent time with Eugene Power and his wife, Sadie Power, who were the lovely folks who endowed and began the festival, and made it a possibility. And many of the early board members, and of course old and current friends.
  • [00:03:20.42] We still have a group of people that meets for breakfast once a month to reminisce about our early days at the festival. We still have the accountant from way back when, and a graphic artist, who is Bill Burgard, who is so very, very involved, and a huge part of my memory of the festival.
  • [00:03:43.91] And my dear friend Susan Pollay, who herself went on from various positions at the festival to be the executive director, as you know. So it's been a great many, many years with the festival.
  • [00:03:58.48] AMY NESBITT: And isn't Amy Harris also part of that?
  • [00:04:00.56] JAMIE MISTRY: And Amy Harris. Yeah, I don't want to leave out Amy, right. Right. And Henry Reynolds, my old buddy, who was also really a mentor of mine in the lighting world, because I used to work for Henry at the Power Center. He was a master electrician, and hung from many precarious positions above the Power Center stage for Henry. And, yeah, so we still see each other from the old days.
  • [00:04:26.92] AMY NESBITT: Yeah, and that's an exciting group. I mean, Susan Pollay now is leading the DDA [Downtown Development Authority].
  • [00:04:33.33] JAMIE MISTRY: Absolutely.
  • [00:04:33.83] AMY NESBITT: And Amy Harris is now leading the University Museum of Natural History. So all of these folks who had time and energy that they devoted to the mission of the summer festival have gone on to do really interesting things and continue with the community.
  • [00:04:52.36] JAMIE MISTRY: Yeah, I haven't thought about it exactly that way, but that's a really true way, I guess, to summarize it and look at it, because in many ways, the festival is such a holistic kind of an event, and a community grown event. So it's only really fitting that the folks that we're talking about, they're all still very active, generous with their time, and involved in the community in so many ways.
  • [00:05:20.52] JACKIE: Let's back up for a minute.
  • [00:05:21.74] JAMIE MISTRY: Sure.
  • [00:05:22.20] JACKIE: Let's tell us about Jamie.
  • [00:05:23.77] JAMIE MISTRY: OK.
  • [00:05:24.87] JACKIE: Where are you from? How did you get to Ann Arbor?
  • [00:05:30.34] JAMIE MISTRY: So long, long ago, I'm from England really, originally.
  • [00:05:34.50] JACKIE: Really?
  • [00:05:34.82] JAMIE MISTRY: --born in England. My parents are both first generation immigrants to this country, and met and decided to make a home in the United States. So I have four brothers, and the five of us all are still very close. In fact, another three of them work with me. And a fourth one is always on the phone with me, but yes, that's a little bit about my background. I have two young daughters.
  • [00:06:02.66] We live still very close to the Ann Arbor community, just outside in Dexter, and love the vibrancy and energy of this community.
  • [00:06:11.14] JACKIE: Now, what were you studying at Michigan?
  • [00:06:13.70] JAMIE MISTRY: I was studying business, and actually was very, very involved in theatre. I thought in my early days that I was going to be a theater producer, so that's part of my affinity for the festival. And I still very much love the theatre. My kids are involved in a few groups around town, and they have inherited, luckily or unluckily, our fondness for the theater and the stage, and we have a particular love of the staged events, the musical theatre oriented offenses, as Robb and Amy of course know.
  • [00:06:52.09] So my background was oriented in many ways towards this type of, I don't know what you might call it, extra curricular or volunteer events in the community.
  • [00:07:01.88] JACKIE: What was your first exposure to this summer festival?
  • [00:07:05.63] JAMIE MISTRY: Wow. My first exposure to the summer festival. You know, I think the first thing I ever did for the-- well, the first way I came upon the festival, I think like many of us in the early days is as a student I probably stumbled by and thought, what's that projection over there on the side of the dentistry elevator building? And of course I wandered over, in the day, which I could say this now, it's been a few years so it is recent, but still history.
  • [00:07:37.38] The projections, of course the Top of the Park lived on top of the university's parking structure. So I explored that, and in those days, and you've probably heard a little of this in other podcasts, but you'd grab a blanket and other people around you would have a picnic or a six pack, or whatever it might be, and wander up and enjoy a movie.
  • [00:08:02.75] And I can't even remember, thinking back, whether-- well, the bands that were there sort of morphed out of that theatrical event of the movie. But it certainly was as, as you've discussed, nothing like the production that it is today with the microphones, the tech system, all of the trappings of our fame and popularity.
  • [00:08:32.80] But, yeah. It would've been a movie, and not long after that, I think finding my way to a job, probably painting the booths that became the early construct of what is now the very glamorous food court, where we have all the different offerings. But in the early days, we had a few different booths that the festival kind of staffed and owned, I guess is the right word.
  • [00:09:02.19] But the Sugar Shack, I think is what it was named. But we sold cotton candy and popcorn, things like that. So those booths, they needed to get A, built, and B, painted. And then C, struck and taken down and stacked away somewhere, and those were my earliest experiences. And then not long after that, of course, I discovered all the festival had to offer indoors as well.
  • [00:09:30.96] And the outdoor festival is one part of the festival, and the ticketed events, of course, is another. But not long after that, I started working at the festival, and then interning at the festival in a more involved capacity.
  • [00:09:47.40] JACKIE: What did an intern do for this festival?
  • [00:09:49.98] JAMIE MISTRY: Boy, what didn't an intern do for the festival. You should ask my friend Alan. You know, it was absolutely spectacular, and I suspect that Amy, with her vast staff has a good sense of this idea that it's all hands on deck all the time. So I say jokingly because I know Amy wears many, many, many hats throughout the day, as does Robb.
  • [00:10:15.89] But it was so fun, because things that if I interned at the Carnegie Hall facility, or at the Mets, or something, I'm sure that I'd be relegated to a back office and stacking paper, or making phone calls, or to be a little fair to them, doing one or two tasks specifically. Whereas at the festival, I had a very broad range of things. So yes, I started sort of painting sets and hanging lights, and doing techie stuff.
  • [00:10:47.47] But I was given a lot of responsibility early on to do some awesome and cool stuff, and it was such a generous group of people. Susan, who I adore, I mean, in my early days with the festival, she's been a mentor to me in so many ways. And her wisdom and talents, and really her creativity kind of put me in a lot of different positions, as did Ellen's and other folks involved with the festival.
  • [00:11:20.89] So to be specific, I did everything from cleaning up our old database, which was some kind of an archaic program which I hope no longer exists, but consolidating entries for various donors. Trying to help do some cross pollination of those groups, and market to various groups. So distributing fliers around town, selling early sponsorships. So this was a cool thing.
  • [00:11:53.01] I actually literally went door to door, and knocking on doors to meet folks who to this day, and I'm very proud of this fact, because I had some small role in this. But to this day, folks who are still sponsors on various levels, and certainly supporters and attendees.
  • [00:12:13.06] But knocking on doors and talking up, here's what the festival is, and a lot of times, have the privilege of having been in a spot where in those early days, you'd walk into a shop and somebody would have a description jockey that was kind of similar to the one I talked about. What's that movie over on the side of this building? They'd say, oh, yeah, yes, the bivouac is just across the street.
  • [00:12:37.76] And we've seen movies going on, what's happening over there? So you kind of got to explore their own story, kind of like we're doing this morning. But you got to explore what the festival was to them. And then if you were lucky, they gave you $500 or $1,000 and said, keep doing what you're doing. And it literally was kind of that simple. It was, here's a check. Keep doing what you're doing. It was very grassroots.
  • [00:13:06.70] And I think, if I can say this, I think one of the strengths of the festival has always been that it does have that kind of grassroots appeal. It's not Carnegie Hall. It's not Spoleto. I know it has some great aspirations, which I fully support and believe in. But at the moment, I guess the best way to say it is it's very much its own thing. It's unique. It's better than Spoleto. It's cool in a very home grown sort of way.
  • [00:13:36.94] And that has a lot to do with sort of the convergence of a lot of different ideas and energies and talents, and finances. And it's grown, truly, from many different seeds. It's a cool thing.
  • [00:13:53.15] AMY NESBITT: Jamie, I wanted to ask you a little more about the volunteer component. Interning, which is a much more structured kind of volunteering, and then you have gone on in later years to then volunteer your expertise, talent and connections as a board member for many years. And you were a major part of board leadership and governance of the organization.
  • [00:14:15.27] And so I guess I would be kind of curious across those sort of three tiers of volunteerism and your involvement in guiding the festival that way, some highlights around those?
  • [00:14:28.73] JAMIE MISTRY: Well, first of all let me say it was an honor to serve on the board. I still have very close friends on the board, and I enjoyed very much that time, an honor to chair it and see it through, I think, a very difficult time. I'm very proud of the work that I did with the board, and very proud of the board as an organization, because really, there were and are terrific people on board the festival's board, which is a credit to the organization, a credit to Robb and Amy.
  • [00:15:00.95] And it's a unique board. A very visionary board. I guess the best way to sort of summarize my experience there is kind of going back to your first question. I did have a unique perspective on board service when I came into the organization, because I started as an intern. I worked at the festival, which is unique as a board member I think, probably. So I met a lot of the donors. I knew a lot of the donors.
  • [00:15:27.57] I'd recruited a few of the donors, and it was real interesting, because when I stepped on to serve on the board, in fact I knew a lot of the board members. They had been serving since I was 15 or so years earlier, I guess, at the festival as a staff member. So it was seeing them in a different venue, I guess. And it brought a unique perspective, I think, to how the board views the community, and how the community views the board.
  • [00:16:03.94] So it was a fun place to sit, I guess. A fun vantage point to have. Serving on the board in a leadership capacity, it was, like I said, it was an honor. It was trying at times, like any good board. There were some things that we had to tackle. We had some big things that we came up against. One, we hired Robb, of course, the current director. We had to do a search and find the talented director that he is.
  • [00:16:36.07] We moved from our old location, as I mentioned over at the parking structure top, over to Ingalls Mall, which was a massive event. We launched, and I'm very proud of this, we launched the festival 5,000 campaign, which is, as you've probably discussed, a support campaign which was kind of a reincarnation, in some ways, of a group that was near and dear to my heart. We had the festival 400 back in the early days.
  • [00:17:11.32] So I mean, this kind of goes to the root of the question you asked. I remembered that group, I knew that group, and I thought, what a great organization back in the day that this was people who'd committed to giving $400 a year for four years, and when Eugene and Sadie Power generously ceded the festival, they said hey, wouldn't it be nice if we had this kind of ongoing stream of revenue?
  • [00:17:37.51] So let's take everybody who wants to get involved in the community and see if they'll kick in a little money on a regular basis. And I'm not quite sure how the 400 came up, but it rhymed, I guess. But so do a lot of numbers. The festival 5,000 did, and we jumped into that. But the festival 5,000 was really, I guess, the dusted off, polished up version. And I am very proud of that.
  • [00:18:04.54] I remember the early days when I had mentioned it to Robb, and talked about this idea of recreating or reinventing a regular stream of income and operating capital. So that's something that was very important to the period when I was part of the board leadership. But really, and Robb was very good to work with, and helped really create the template for how the board rotated, I guess is the simplest way to put it.
  • [00:18:35.30] Because we did have a lot of old, very loyal supporters, who are still loyal supporters of the festival around the board table. But also, we needed to free up some space, I guess is the simplest way to put it, to bring new talent and liveliness, and energy and exposure to the board. So that was an exciting transition, too.
  • [00:19:00.82] AMY NESBITT: Yeah, introducing board term limits so that there would be a rotation, and that people could serve on the board for a period of time, and then take a breather and a step away for a few years, allowing other members of the community to engage and participate in that leadership. And bring their talents and skills to the group.
  • [00:19:20.28] JAMIE MISTRY: Really, absolutely. And I think really kind of building a board where there's this culture of ambassadorship. I do feel proud, I'm not taking full responsibility for that, certainly, but I think that during the time I was there, we tried to really grow that idea, which is yes, you're a board member, and probably the most important thing, different people might have a different perspective on this.
  • [00:19:48.90] Some might say it's fundraising, some might say it's helping operationally. But I say the most important role that somebody serves as a board member is really to be a good steward to the organization, a good ambassador of all the fun stuff. And it's the most important role, and it's the easiest role. It's the easiest thing to do is, to get out and talk up the festival. I mean, who doesn't like to talk about the festival? Everybody does.
  • [00:20:16.16] JACKIE: Now, I read somewhere that half the board is appointed, and half is elected? Is that--
  • [00:20:22.37] JAMIE MISTRY: I think what you're thinking of is there's a construct to the board the original bylaws of the board drafted way back when, when Mr. Power put it into place. Said that half of the constituents would represent the university community, and half would represent the broad city of Ann Arbor. So that's something that we've abided by, and it's neat because Ann Arbor in so many ways is really a tandem event.
  • [00:20:48.08] It's a combination of all the cool things about the University of Michigan, and all the cool things about the summer festival and the broad community, the city at large. So it was in some ways, this is the wrong word, but it was kind of a forced merger. It was this cool, collaborative venture where all these energies came together, and we tried to, I guess, keep it approximately balanced. You have to have constituents from both fronts.
  • [00:21:18.32] It's kind of easy to do, because you have a lot of folks who-- well, I won't speak for the nominating committee. I'm sure they don't think it's super easy to do, but there's so many good people in both of those communities, and some wear two hats. Have folks who represent, there they're involved in the city at large, and they're also integral in some way, shape, or form to the university.
  • [00:21:40.89] But it was an idea of kind of merging of these two communities, and bringing the strengths of those two communities together.
  • [00:21:49.92] AMY NESBITT: It'd be a longtime board member, Professor Jim Rees, formerly of the university, and former board member Ingrid Sheldon, who was also the mayor of Ann Arbor. And I think back to the stories I've heard of board members, while they're volunteering their time and service, doing everything from flipping hamburgers at Top of the Park, where now we have professional restaurateurs who are vendors there, to going to the airport and picking up an artist who, I'm going to make a joke.
  • [00:22:22.89] I don't know if it's Mel Torme, but there was a situation where an artist has a flight come in, and there's a board member cleans out the back seat and puts the luggage in, and gets them to their hotel. Where now we have a professional staff that looks after the artists who are in and out.
  • [00:22:40.48] JAMIE MISTRY: Absolutely.
  • [00:22:41.89] AMY NESBITT: The contrast from, say, the late '80s, early '90s to now. Maybe you could speak to that a bit.
  • [00:22:50.05] JAMIE MISTRY: The festival certainly is a much more mature organization operationally, and there's a handful of people who have been so critical to that. I think of Julie Fritz and Patricia Garcia, and many more names that are on the tip of my tongue here. But all the folks who've been operationally so integral to really bringing this whole thing together.
  • [00:23:15.89] And it's not an easy event to bring together. It's a short event. It looks deceptively simple when you're at it, and that's a good thing. But it's a very, very complicated octopus. And all of those different arms require a lot of shepherding throughout the course of the year, and it's not easy. But if you look at the contrast between the early days, I mean, it's funny you mention it.
  • [00:23:43.35] I was one of those guys who had a car and would run out to the airport to pick up an artist as needed. So I'm sure, and there were some pretty stark examples where I'm sure when whomever it might be, I can't think from the early days. You mentioned Mel Torme, or Aretha Franklin, or Tony Bennett. Or people who, when they showed up thought, where's my limousine, and they got tucked in the back of a Toyota and shepherded into Ann Arbor.
  • [00:24:16.40] In some ways it was the best of the festival, though, because really, it brought sort of a character of the community to what we were doing. So, yeah, we had a delivery van. I mean, I remember a variety of artists over the years that we brought in in, like I said, a very grassroots kind of way.
  • [00:24:40.01] It's not like we have a summer festival limousine now, but we have a more, I'll put it this way, I guess a more structured organization with a lot better infrastructure in place to do those things properly.
  • [00:24:56.35] AMY NESBITT: Yeah, and that is a big contrast, we were speaking earlier, actually, about the difference, even in the scale of operational budget, of what the festival can do, and being able to work with professional producers to hang the lights, to pick up the artists, and all of that scale that's so dramatically different than, say, the early '90s.
  • [00:25:18.02] JAMIE MISTRY: Yeah, absolutely. Right. I mean, for what we had, for the resources that were available, I will say I think the festival did a terrific job getting through some very crazy times. But every organization, I think has growing to do, and advancing to do. But the festival, those early days, it's funny because we've grown a lot, and yes, it's been 30 years, which is very exciting.
  • [00:25:45.62] But it's been a lot of growth in 30 years. When you think about tossing a blanket on a parking structure and watching a movie on our reel to reel, I remember it was a very big leap when we went to raising the projection booth off the surface of the structure, and stabilizing it, and Henry Reynolds, you should ask him this question, but we have some terrifying stories.
  • [00:26:12.09] We had a very stormy Top of the Park one season, and we actually had to take scaffolding down. I probably shouldn't say this on any kind of documented way with our insurance company listening, but we had, I remember basically swinging from this scaffolding in the stormy weather, taking down the sound clusters from the Top of the Park, and hopefully those types of events are not happening with interns these days.
  • [00:26:40.56] But yeah, it's exciting to see just how much the festival has grown, and I think, again, it's to, Amy, to your credit and Robb's credit, and the board at large for bringing this kind of regularity and consistency to the way the operation is run. It's great.
  • [00:27:02.88] AMY NESBITT: Do you have a starstruck moment? Is there somebody you met in the festival, some of the stars that you will never forget?
  • [00:27:10.86] JAMIE MISTRY: Wow. You know, that's a big question, because there's so many people. I mean, I have a lot of admiration for so many folks. It was a special time when Tony Bennett came in, you know, really just not necessarily stories of high-fiving the artist or long conversations over a glass of wine with them. Although those things did happen. But more just really being in the orb of some of these folks who came in. It's just a fun energy, and every different performer has a different kind of back story that they bring with them.
  • [00:27:50.79] But yeah, I mean, I guess some of my starstruck moments, to be specific in the early days, when we were programming some of these now even more legendary than they were then, but we had Etta James at the festival, Bonnie Raitt, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald. I mean, the list goes on.
  • [00:28:16.87] And I mean, I guess if I have a starstruck moment, I mean, one of my great vocal heroes is Ella Fitzgerald. And the fact that I was in the same town as her when she came in, and that's my very, very early days of the festival. But she was, I don't even know how old she must have been when she came to visit us, but that sort of glamorous star from days gone by, is just, that was really phenomenal.
  • [00:28:50.67] So I was beyond starstruck by that kind of exposure. And then the heartwarming stories you hear, Susan has a great story that she could share with you about people like Ray Charles who, every once in awhile, every celebrity has this sort of scary, dirty laundry, or background about how they really behave when they're with their fans.
  • [00:29:15.05] And when you hear these great things about folks, like, well, like Ray Charles, who was just a gentleman, and so many others that, like I said, the list goes on. But the caliber of performer that has graced the stages of the festival is really staggering, when you think about it. I mean, many of the names I just mentioned, I mean, they're no longer with us, sadly.
  • [00:29:45.88] Our 30 year history starts to feel very real from that perspective. And then there's, of course, Pink Martini, who I adore and will be at their show this year, as well as a few years ago. So yeah, I mean, that's kind of the fun thing. You have these monumental, larger than life, gigantic forces. And not even within their genre, but within the universe. Ella and Ray and all these superstars.
  • [00:30:18.76] And then you have these sort of great, sort of edgy, fabulous kinds of different performers that Robb's kind of discovered, or not necessarily discovered, but certainly highlighted and brought to town. So it's exciting.
  • [00:30:38.33] JACKIE: What would you see in five years, the festival will be?
  • [00:30:45.12] JAMIE MISTRY: I would piggyback on the good work that the board has done, and I would sort of leave it to them to articulate exactly where the festival will be. But my vision for where the festival will be is something very much like what it is. I think, which is terrific, and very different, by the way, than it was five or 10 years ago. Every arts organization has difficulty kind of reconciling.
  • [00:31:13.96] How do we survive with only so much earned revenue, and we need a certain amount of philanthropy to keep us afloat. If we've done anything well over the last many years, and if I've had a role in this, I am happy, we've articulated the message to Ann Arbor that it's a free event, but it's not a free event. So fortunately, it's free. You can walk up and enjoy the Top of the Park, and take your family up and not pay a penny.
  • [00:31:45.30] But most people, I think, very generously dig into their pocket and toss a quarter in the till up there, or write checks for thousands of dollars to support the event, because they love it and embrace it. But I guess I see the festival over the next 5, 10, and 15 years as number one, this sounds kind of almost silly but, number one, surviving. Which is, it's like the recipe for chicken soup, right?
  • [00:32:14.28] Number one, find a chicken. So the recipe for success in the arts world is number one, be here. And that's kind of a complicated recipe, but it's a lot of things. It's fundraising, it's articulating your mission. It's not getting too crazy. And Robb Woulfe, love him. He's just crazy enough, not too crazy. But bringing some things that are inventive and edgy, and kind of push the boundaries.
  • [00:32:45.75] But also filling seats. That's a big part of what we're doing. If my kids can enjoy the festival, and they're very young now, just 9 and 11. But when they're 19 and 21, and a decade beyond that, if they can still come up and explore the festival and enjoy it the way that I did when I was a young guy, I'll be very, very pleased and proud. So my vision is that it still is a gem of the community, and that's something that we can enjoy for many years to come.
  • [00:33:35.94] NARRATOR: Music for this episode was "Topsy/Swing to Bob" by George Bedard, off his album Pickin' Apart the Past, with permission of the artist. AADL talks to Jamie Mistry has been a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.