Dallas — Polly Lou McAdams was something of a scandal when I became aware of her in 1963 or so. Here she was, defiantly dumpy and wild-haired going through the rituals of being a debutante in Dallas which, in those days, was a very big deal indeed for the progeny of the uber upper class of Highland Park. Back then, The Dallas Morning News covered all the balls and folderol with many photo layouts of these immaculately groomed and gowned girls who were flowering into high society. I was distinctly an outsider to high society myself, but was drawn to look at that coverage because of the odd girl who’d be smack in the middle of the photo with her wild hair and a distinctly crooked smile that looked a lot like a snarl. Those photos showed clear evidence that society was about to contain a social subversive.
Polly Lou earned some sort of credential by going through the grind of a debutante year and thus was positioned to rally a group of new contacts to take on support of the arts as its cause. Polly Lou was drawn to Larry Kelly, an immensely charming, cheerful, and thoroughly knowledgeable impresario who founded Dallas Opera, then known as Dallas Civic Opera. Larry, as head of the nascent organization sought moneyed patrons and Larry, of course, encouraged Polly Lou and her young colleagues. I’m only speculating here, but I strongly suspect Polly Lou, like many, was dazzled by Larry’s dashing ways and the artist in her (she was something of a musician and, as it turned out later, something of a plausible actress, too) wanted to please Larry. And, again speculating, I think she hoped some of Larry’s charm would rub off on her. The truth is Polly Lou was more forceful than charming. At any rate, out of her thinking and industry (and with family support) she founded a group to support the opera—oh yes, and other arts too—called The 500. The name had a real ring to it implying a high social status of its members.
Polly Lou deserves full credit for launching an organization that was indispensable to the Arts in Dallas from the mid-‘60s to the early-‘90s. In truth, it was others who devised the events that enabled The 500 to be major financial supporters of a growing list of arts organizations. Polly Lou made sure that members went to “educational meetings” which gave 500 members a kind of social outing as well as a behind-the-scenes demonstrations and lectures on how things went together at arts institutions. Thus, besides financial support, many of the organizations could recruit board members who actually knew something about the workings of the organizations before joining the boards. We had several (who even served as board chair) at Theatre Three from The 500.
Once a year there was a kind of “show and tell” get together where arts chiefs made a presentation to the membership. Well, let’s call it what it was: a pitch! After all the pitches, the members each got to vote what percentage of the monies they’d earned went to whom. Now there was an evening that was important! The truth is, the monies were distributed based on passion. I loved it. And I loved Polly Lou, despite her continued dour outlook. She and her husband Clyde Moore did a term as president of Theatre Three’s board. She was a major patron of other theater organizations including Stage One, Addison Community Theatre’s Stone Cottage before they built Watertower Theater, and especially of the Plaza Theatre in Snyder Plaza’s old movie house. And she never lost her devotion to opera, even after Larry Kelly’s death. When Polly Lou died in 2007, her memorial service was at Theatre Three.
This week I have to process the death of Polly Lou’s organization. The 500 has just issued a press release that its board has decided to shut down the organization, citing a changed landscape in fundraising that has made them unable earn monies to distribute. The truth is, The 500 has suffered three years of death throes trying to stage events that would be profitable, but wound up not being able to do so. Unquestionably, they’re right to close up shop just as they’re right about the changed landscape in fundraising. So it’s an appropriate “mercy killing.” Alas.
At Theatre Three we’ve done without The 500 funds we used to regularly get since the ‘90s when the organization began to falter. But we always hoped for a resurgence of the group. When The 500 was in its salad days, the largess of its membership to Theatre Three was a major element in our achievements. Not just us: the vitality of the organization in those days was a major element in the landscape of arts institutions. Many still-existing organizations had early financial nourishment from The 500, spawned of that snarling ‘60s debutante with the wild hair. RIP, Polly Lou. RIP, The 500.
Now please, fate, send us another rebel to take up the cause!
◊ Jac Alder is the Executive Director-Producer of Theatre Three in Dallas. Look for his monthly musings in Bit by Bit, which run on the second Sunday of the month. Here is a list of previous columns:
- September 2013: Theater's unsung philantrophists
- October 2013: Theater artists and their critics
- November 2013: Ch-Ch-Changes
- December 2013: What the Audience Knows
- January 2014: What's New?
- February 2014: Upgrading to the Modern World
- March 2014: Not to Worry
- April 2014: If Not for Shaw
- May 2014: Back to the Future