Uncle Larry
Emmet Kelley

© Copyright 2016 by Emmet Kelley

Photo of Lawrence Kelley and Maria Callas.

           It's a kind of morality to do the best you can.”

       This very telling statement was the credo-for-life of  one of my “most unforgettable characters” with whom I had the pleasure of  knowing, in all of my 60+ years of living, namely, my now dear departed uncle, Lawrence V. Kelly. Though only 46 when he died in 1974, Uncle Larry packed a lot of living in his life, a life of considerable achievement, triumph and travail, rubbing elbows and revitalizing cultural tastes with the great and near-great while coming from modest affluence, a risk-taker with the instincts of a riverboat gambler and a man of  much-touted taste and imagination. Most of all, he had a sparkling personality  and Irish brand of charm, which one author-critic wrote, “made everyone he worked with and knew literally fall in love with him.”

       By occupation---one he arrived after juggling other occupations---Uncle Larry was an opera producer, or opera impesario, though he modestly dismissed the latter designation: “I'm simply a manager in the operatic field; there hasn't been a bona fide impresario since Diagheliv.” This was a fitting vocation for a lifelong near-fanatic opera lover [or, as he termed it, “opera-phile”], whose godmother was an opera singer, and who got diverted into opera “on a wing and a prayer” after many years of piano studies made him realize “ I just wasn't cut out to be a concert pianist—I had to fight for every bit of technique I had.” He had studied music at Chicago Musical College while attending Loyola Academy, 1943-46, a prep school run by the Jesuit order. He would say that, when times of crisis arose in his opera career—and there were quite a number---he would use crisis-management tactics “that I assimilated from my Jesuit upbringing---stay cool and stick to the facts.”

       Yet, though Kelly co-founded 3 major American opera companies---as      well as being a producer of opera scenes for early educational TV, and for a short time acting manager of a major symphony orchestra----he has receded into the shrouds of  mist of time, partly for being  eclipsed by contemporaries----persons such as Rudolf Bing, general manager, New York Metropolitan Opera; Beverly Sills, noted singer and general manager, New York City Opera; David Gockley, general manager, Houston Grand Opera; Sarah Caldwell, general manger/artistic director/conductor, Boston Civic Opera; Bob Herman, general manager, Miami City Opera; and Carol Fox, general manager [and co-founder with Uncle Larry], Chicago Lyric Opera [these personages have been the subjects of autobiographies and biographies, memoirs of colleagues, histories of the cities and states they practiced in, and retrospectives in print, broadcast, and online media], partly because of  dropoff of interest in classical grand opera from the 1970s to the early 2000s, with other forms of “opera”---rock opera [The Who's “Tommy”], space opera {“Star Wars”, “Star Trek”], prime-time soap opera {“Dallas”, “Dynasty”], Clint Eastwood-style horse opera---taking over.   But for dyed-in-the-wool opera aficianados of all generations since his passing, Lawrence Kelly remains a glowing, not flickering, icon in the pantheon of operatic greats. And, this is how it should be.

       In order to properly write about and examine Larry Kelly properly, some general background is in order. 

     He was born in Chicago in 1928, the fifth son of a wealthy, self-made  Irish-American real estate developer and cosmetic cream manufacturer, whose father was an emigre from the slums of Ireland to fight as a paid substitute in the civil war, then going into business as a travelling drummer, or salesman. Though  Larry's father lost much of his fortune in the Great Depression, the Kelly family retained their “social register” status. Young Larry went to Loyola Academy, an exclusive  Jesuit-run prep school, and simultaneously  attended Chicago Musical College [1943-46] for piano studies. Deciding against a music career for a business career, Uncle Larry, with some idea of becoming either an attorney or a CPA, attended the Jesuit-run Georgetown University as a pre-law major [Larry attributed much of his ability to “keep his cool” in times of crisis to “my Jesuit upbringing”]. During this time he became, in his words, an “opera-phile”, regularly commuting to New York to attend the Metropolitan Opera House's productions. He may also have tried to get a summer internship in stage management with the Met, foreshadowing his later career.

       In 1950, with the passing of his father, Uncle Larry dropped out of Georgetown sans degree to take over the reins of the family real estate business, Kelly Bros. Realty, Inc. He juggled different occupations from 1950 to 1954----acquiring his real estate license to run Kelly Realty, being board member of 2 family businesses, reading law at DePaul University, taking accounting classes at night school, and  becoming established as an insurance broker. None of this was lost, as he was unknowingly prepping himself for his life's work.

       In addition to these business ventures, Kelly became involved in a movement among young Chicagoans to revive grand opera productions, to fill a void left by the shutdown of the last opera company in 1946, and nothing but abortive attempts since. His chief partner in this movement “to restore grand opera in the grand tradition of Chicago” was a European-trained wouldbe singer just returned home named Carol Fox. “I met Carol on a blind date and we had this affinity---and also we were playpals,” Kelly recalled with a chuckle. “Carol knew she didn't have the talent to be an opera singer, just as I'd discarded my dream of becoming a pianist---But now we shared a dream of starting a new opera company for the city, despite all the odds against us.” Joining Kelly and Fox in the opera-revival campaign was Fox's ex-voice coach, Nicola Rescigno, an Italian-American conductor “who was wonderfully gifted and had many marvelous contacts,” Kelly said.


          With Larry's law and accounting background, he became the “finance member” of the group. He, Fox, and Rescigno, along with others, signed the articles of incorporation for the proposed company, dubbed Chicago Lyric Theater in 1952, and a 5-year plan was drawn up. Also that year the trio organized the Lyric Guild, a group of 30 persons—mostly friends of Kelly and Fox from “old blueblood” Chicago families---to assist with promotion and fundraising for the opera project. In the meantime Kelly and Fox negotiated deals with the Kemper Insurance Company, who owned a warehouse housing $5 million worth of sets and $12 million worth of costumes accumulated  from previous opera companies, and who would enjoy a sizeable tax exemption if sets and costumes were put to use in legitimate productions. Also there were negotiations with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the musicians' union, for the use of symphony players in Lyric Theater performances. Simultaneously, Rescigno managed to persuade his performer friends to seriously consider appearing in Chicago Lyric Theater productions once the necessary funds were secured.

     [SIDENOTE: According to one source, Danny Newman, the Lyric Theater's press agent and a co-founder, Kelly and Fox took money that was supposed to go into payment of withholding taxes on employees' salaries to the government  and secretly diverted this largesse into the company's treasury to maintain a kitty of ready cash for the company, even though this was technically against Federal law!]

         Finally, after months of planning and with “seed money” to the tune of $30,000 donated by Fox's father—a furniture manufacturing executive—and his friends, the Chicago Lyric Theater  presented its “calling card” two-performance production of  “Don Giovanni” in February, 1954, with an all-star cast of top opera singers; and the “Don Giovanni” production was an artistic and financial success. With this notch on the trio's belt, Fox made a junket to Europe to recruit more stellar opera talent for the fledgeling company---including Maria Callas, a Greek-American songstress then living in Italy, considered the highest caliber singer in opera at that time, the biggest catch by Fox for her fledgeling  company, to stage  Callas' long-awaited American debut. With this coup, Kelly and Fox attained sufficient backing for one full season, at least

     In November 1954 the Chicago Lyric Theater kicked off its first season of 3 weeks with Callas performing the lead role in the opera “Norma”, with Rescigno as conductor. The 1954 “shakedown cruise” was, somewhat unexpectedly, a huge success, and, as Chicago Tribune music/theater critic Claudia Cassidy put it, “the explosive presence of Callas, coupled with the stellar cast and crew, has put Chicago's new and improved opera company into international orbit! Chicago can proudly proclaim 'Encore, encore!' “

      Spurred on by these accolades, in tandem with an overflow of box-office receipts, the Kelly -Fox-Rescigno  team put together a 5 week season for 1955, again featuring Callas as the chief marquee attraction, topping the success of the 1954 season with her rendition of “Madame Butterfly.”. However, an incident occurred that eventually led to the breakup of the trio.

         All the times she had been in Chicago, Callas had had to dodge process servers who were assigned to serve her with a subpoena because a former agent of hers demanded a portion of her proceeds which he claimed he owed her, due to a contract she had signed with him  years before in her ingenue days which she had never honored. Finally, right after her final “Madame Butterfly” performance, a process server caught up with her and served her with the court summons, with the necessary physical contact. Callas flew into a rage, vowing never to sing in Chicago again. Apparently Fox, miffed at demands Callas had made of the Lyric Theater that smacked of Hollywood-style “star treatment”, permitted the process server access to Callas  as a penalty to the singer, The Callas incident brought to the surface simmering frictions among the three founders of the Lyric Theater, resulting in a power struggle with Fox and her backers as the victors, forcing out Kelly and Rescigno on a court order in 1956.

        In the wake of this debacle, Uncle Larry and Rescigno started an educational TV enterprise, Operatic Productions Inc., for NET-TV, the forerunner in the 1950s of PBS-TV.      Operatic Productions presented self-contained acts and scenes from popular operas, with then-prominent Ruth Page serving as choreographer and Rescigno  as conductor, in 1956-57, and helped pave the way for the arts on the TV screen.

       Later, Kelly moved to New York, mulling his future. It was hardly surprising, what with his last two career ventures, the Lyric Theater and Operatic Productions, that he wanted to continue in opera management. “I didn't want to return to my old occupations—I'd been btten by the opera bug. So I wanted  to start my own company and holed up in a hotel with a map to determine the choicest location for my own company,” Kelly recollected. He nixed one city after another--”Detroit was out because it was too close to Chicago; Los Angeles was out because it had only the 'monstrous' Shrine Auditorium and little operatic tradition;  Pittsburgh had been tried and been 'too tough'  plus it had 'lousy weather'; Atlanta and Miami lacked the financial resources and auditorium facilities for such a project.”  Little by little the choices narrowed down to Dallas---”It had a not bad symphony orchestra, a plausible auditorium with the Texas State Fair Music Hall, was a growing financial center in such areas as real estate, insurance, law, and banking, all of which I had familiarity with.” Another plus was that the Dallas arts community wanted an opera company to expand the activities of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Kelly put out feelers to them via mighty Dallas arts and entertainment columnist John Rosenthal [later replaced by the illustrious John Ardoin, another friend of Larry's], and shortly was invited down, armed with his visions of potential success and Irish derring-do. The Dallas Civic Opera, or DCO, was chartered in March 1957 and Kelly, who would spend the rest of his professional and personal life there, seemed to be on his way—or so he thought

        From a rocky start, where Dallas citizenry stayed away in droves for a concert by Callas followed by the one production DCO mounted that season, Uncle Larry faced one crisis after another---fundraising and fiscal pitfalls, shortages of funds to pay cast and crew, artists nearly breaking contracts in fits of operatic temperament, low audience turnouts, occasional poor critical reviews, Dallasites who grumbled about “squandering money on opera” and “Kelly's slick Northern ways”---and once in a while near-ruin, as was the case of JFK's November 1963 assassination occurring in the middle  of DCO's season. “I cancelled the performance scheduled that horrible day, but the board of directors wanted me to cancel the second scheduled performance---which would have been a third of  our season gone and possible financial ruin for the company. Certainly I was as miserable as everybody—especially being Irish and Catholic and appreciative of Kennedy's contribution to the arts. But I stressed this theme—that we should go ahead with the second performance out of memory for the man and his cultural contributions. Well, we went ahead on that basis and were not criticized.”

        In 1965, on the verge of DCO's 10th anniversary  the following year , disaster nearly struck down DCO again. At a confab of business and nonprofit corporate interests, it was decided to consolidate the fund drives of all arts centers—museums, galleries, theater, music, and the performing arts---into one “Superfund Art Drive”, with each arts center getting a slice of the Art Fund pie. Unfortunately, by 1965, the Art Fund had failed to reach its quota, and it suggested that DCO disband its activities “as if we were some sort of frill,” Kelly said, in favor of sponsoring the annual touring New York Met tour ensemble. This, according to OPERA NEWS, brought out Uncle Larry's “fighting Irish blood” and “it was the Art Fund, not DCO, that went down the drain.”  In 1970, DCO virtually shut down because, as John Ardoin write in his Opera News obit on Uncle Larry,”the company was badly financially extended, midway through the season there was no money to raise the curtain, checks were bouncing, and a group of angry singers virtually camped at Larry's doorstep demanding to be paid—But somehow Larry ralied, conjured up the necessay funds, and the 1970 season proceeded smoothly from there on.” I was  later informed by the above-mentioned publicist/promoter Danny Newman, who was an arts consultant for the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, that he, Newman, a long-treasured friend of Larry's, was the money-source behind Uncle Larry's “money-conjuring act,” securing contingency funding from the Foundation and the NEA at Larry's request. From 1970 on, DCO rose like a phoenix from the ashes, with a healthy endowment fund to keep the company out of the red. This endowment was due in large part again to Newman, whose expertise in developing successful subscription campaigns---his 1977 book, “Subscribe Now!” was a Bible for nonprofit arts and literary  fundraisers----enabled DCO to double its subscriptions and keep the company out of debt.

        Though Uncle Larry, who described himself as a “survivalist”, surmounted these crises, they took a great toll on his wellbeing. Add to this his chain-smoking---he smoked up to 40 cigarettes a day----his on-and-off heavy drinking, his working routine of 10 to 12 hours a day, his incessant traveling to Europe and back scouting new singing and stage design and directing talent, combined with family heredity,  it seems as little surprise that he developed cancer of the liver and pancreas. This was just before  he took over the reins of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra---which was in financial tatters on a par with DCO in 1970---as acting manager.    He managed to get the symphony back on a partial footing with donations and subscriptions before he became too ill to continue. On Sept. 16, 1974, Uncle Larry died in Kansas City at the home of a friend, David Sticklebar. 

        In appearance, as Ardoin described him, “Larry was slight of build—about 5' 8” tall and of slim build [which may have created in him a quasi-Napoleonic complex], handsome though somewhat baby-faced, and with thinning hair since his late 20s that he agonized over (it should be noted here that Uncle Larry endured two hair transplants with little success; but even with encroaching baldness he remained a very attractive man, with some resemblance to the actor Jack Lemmon).  Coupled with this was Uncle Larry's sparkling charm, magnetism, and his ability to whip up enthusiasm for his projects no matter how ambitious, in keeping with his own soaring ambitions—for the arts, for his colleagues, and for himself.

            I got to know Uncle Larry fairly well in the 1960s, when he was in the prime of life and career. The last time I saw him, in Chicago where I was working for my father, he had just emerged from a gossip column session with friend and protege Maria Callas, who had just had the wrenching experience of  being cast aside by Aristotle Onassis as his mistress for marriage to Jackie Kennedy. After a botched suicide attempt by Callas, Uncle Larry and some friends took Callas on a Merry Prankster-style odyssey throughout the Southwest, with stops in Tijuana, Las Vegas, and parts of California among other places, to revive Callas's spirits and get her mind off the nefarious Onassis. Uncle Larry peppered his conversations with me with inside dope on various celebrities, fascinating insights into opera production and how corralling all the right talent for a production was an exciting challenge, and a veteran's advice on how to gain entree into the professional arts---and he even offered me a chance to be an “intern/observer” for the following year's season to see how a production was welded together—a golden, life-altering  opportunity, alas, I failed to take advantage of.

          And also, alas, that was the last time I saw Uncle Larry, learning through the media of his untmely “stage-exit” from this world in 1974. Not only will I always remember him, I will also always miss him, as one of  the most unforgettable characters in my life. With the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Dallas Civic Opera, Uncle Larry leaves an indelible mark on the arts in America, as well as a wonderful indelible mark on me.

Contact Emmet

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Emmet's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher