By Val Schoger, Photography by Mike Booini
The Panama City Music Association was born out of a love and passion for music. A News Herald article on November 22, 19421 describes how members of The Woman’s Club of Panama City gathered at The Cove Hotel to form a new group, the “Friday Morning Musicale.” The year was 1926 and the group later became the Panama City Music Association.
“It was through initial efforts of the Friday Musicale that, in a later year, music was to become a part of the school programs in Panama City schools,” the article reads. Its members sponsored local high school and grammar school bands and musicians through scholarships. Frequent community concerts were organized in the following years. It must have been wonderful to see the music community grow through young students who practiced, performed, and could be applauded.
Today, however, the members of the Music Association find themselves in a situation similar to the one their predecessors worked so hard to improve. Schools are facing budget cuts and, as a result, music programs are dropped and dedicated music teachers are lost. The situation is a nationwide problem that has become a topic of political concern and new education policies. 2
Of course, as involved in the local musical community as all of the Music Association members have been throughout the years, they are on fire for their cause.
“We encourage young listeners to attend our performances,” says Gigi Zimmerman, current president of the Music Association. “When the season starts, we will offer reduced prices or free tickets to kids in the community, especially middle and high school students. We reach out to the community and ask music students to hand out programs before the concerts and, of course, they get a free ticket as a thank you. We try to help people realize the importance of cultural education.” Like all members of the Panama City Music Association, Gigi Zimmerman brings a wealth of expertise to the group. Her entire family are musicians and her husband Nevin is the president of the community youth choir. Two of their four daughters have made music their careers.
There is much work to do. The four shows that are offered per season are carefully selected to resonate with the audience. A musical, a symphony, an opera, a ballet performance, or other programs based on their popularity, high standard, and cultural education value is chosen every year. According to past president Nancy Moore, in the beginning, the city was not quite prepared to accommodate the needs of world-class performers. From the Bay High School auditorium stage that had to be scrubbed and cleared of “a hazard course of nails from high school plays” for world-famous former Prima Ballerina, Alexandra Danilova’s performance, to the sudden hotel relocation of opera star Blanch Thebom who probably sang an aria when she discovered a palmetto bug in her hotel room.
Program Director Bob Borich moved to Panama City Beach from Chicago where, for 25 years, he had been a patron of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He jumped at the chance to get involved with the PCMA and is committed to high standards and bringing the shows that you would see in New York, Chicago or San Francisco to Panama City. “Without the Panama City Music Association, living here would be a lesser living experience. This is important to me personally,” he states.
Thriving culture is also very personal to second generation board member Nancy Moore. Her aunt, the late Louise Sapp, was the ﬁrst board president and her parents, Mack and Eleanor Lewis, helped bring the Panama City Music Association to life. A graduate of Texas Christian University, Nancy Moore performed professionally in ballet and musical theater in New York, danced in the Corps de Ballet at Radio City Music Hall, and later performed with the famous Rockettes. After obtaining a master’s degree in dance and theater at SMU, she returned to Bay County, operated a dance studio and became one of the driving forces on the board of directors of the PCMA. Nancy points out how important it is to involve the youth. “When I was young, there was not much here for young people to do. My mother would take me 200 miles away to see a ballet performance because I loved ballet. Today, parents are torn between soccer, football, piano, and dance lessons, and unfortunately there is no time to experience the culture.”
The board members agree that it is important to experience live performances. “In our society, in our culture, people live through the media, so if they can hear a performance and they can watch it on TV, they think that’s equally as good as seeing it in person. That’s what we are seeing with the young people. They’re not going to make the effort. But it’s like watching a church service on television versus going to a church, or it’s like watching a travel show on TV rather than going and experiencing travel. It’s not the same.”
Bob Borich agrees, “Just to bring them into a theater setting like this is one of our goals. Some of these kids have never been in a theater and, hopefully, they will come back. High school kids get excited once they are at a performance, especially Broadway shows, if they have never been to one. They might not be able to afford it otherwise.”
Through an exciting partnership with the Pensacola Opera, the Music Association has started to offer a free children’s opera performance to second graders from Bay, Gulf, and Franklin Counties. All kids are invited to Panama City’s Marina Civic Center with free transportation from and to their schools. Before attending a performance, the teachers discuss opera and performances in the classroom. On the big day, with the children’s feet barely hanging over the plush seats, when the performers on stage ask the kids about opera, the thundering on-cue response from hundreds of little listeners was, “Opera Rocks!” Moments like these make the hard work so rewarding.
“Dinner and Arias” is another program offered in collaboration with the Pensacola Opera’s Artists in Residence program. It is an up-close experience to see young professional opera singers perform in a casual setting.
The upcoming season remains true to high standards of bringing world-class performers to Panama City, to inspire, to entertain, to educate.
“Everybody on the board has a job to do and they are doing it. I’m very fortunate as the president,” says Gigi Zimmerman about the 24 other board members. “I’ve got the best working board ever. You’ll see Bob, Nancy, and many others. It’s great. They do things without being told or asked. They see things that need to be done. It is seamless and we work well together.”
The Panama City Music Association is a volunteer based non-profit organization and does not employ staff. The funds collected for season memberships are used for artist compensation, venue rental (the Marina Civic Center), and the actual cost of printing and mailing information to members. Dedicated long-time members are known to donate and contribute largely to the organization. For more information and to buy season tickets, visit www.pcmusicassociation.com.
1Panama City News Herald, Vol. 29, No. 156 from November 22, 1942 – article by Mrs. T. L. Cowser
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