For a festival in ruins, timely help from Saudi Arabia
The scene was hardly festive: 2,500 or so Washingtonians braving the unseasonal cold and damp on June 13 to hear the U.S. Air Force Band play at Wolf Trap Farm Park. Nonetheless, as Ed Corn, executive vice president of the Wolf Trap Foundation, made clear, it was a "very, very special evening" - thanks to Saudi Arabia.
Enormously popular, Virginia's Wolf Trap is America's only national park for the performing arts; a gift to the country from Mrs. Jouett Shouse in 1966, it has offered, through 11 summer seasons, such varied fare as jazz, ballet, opera and musical comedy from inside the 3,500-seat open-air Filene Center Theater.
Typically, at Wolf Trap, some 3,000 people would also fill the lawn outside — many with tablecloths and picnic baskets under the stars - an experience that was addictive on concert evenings to the fast-paced Washington crowd, and later to a huge television audience that got hooked on the "Live from Wolf Trap" series on Public TV in 1974.
On April 4, however, just two months before the opening of the 1982 season, a fire of unknown origin destroyed the Filene center and both backers and audiences -throughout the east coast - were dismayed. In 11 years, Wolf Trap had already become a tradition - and in Virginia traditions die hard.
They needn't have worried. Even as the flames consumed the theater, 86-year old Mrs. Shous - the guiding spirit and grande dame of Wolf Trap - quietly resolved to salvage as much of the season as possible. Said Corn later: "We didn't know where, what, or who, but I never heard a mention from anyone that we wouldn't have a season."
Within 24 hours of the fire, in fact, Wolf Trap employees were inundated with suggestions for such temporary structures as an inflatable hockey rink, a geodesic dome and a concrete balloon - none of which satisfied the crucial requirements dictated by time, space and money.
Three days into the crisis, an information packet arrived from Sprung Instant Structures, Inc., of Calgary, Canada. It described a tent now known as the "Meadow Center," and though dozens of other possibilities had to be weighed, the Sprung tent eventually emerged, according to Larisa Wan-serski, director of public relations at Wolf Trap, as "the only structure in the world we could use in the specific time frame."
There was, unfortunately, one monumental problem with using the Sprung tent: it was being used at a tradefair in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and getting it to Virginia was going to be costly.
At this point, Shaikh Fayfal al-Hujaylan, ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States, made his entrance. Veteran Wolf Trap patrons, and personal friends of two foundation board directors, the ambassador and his wife, Nouha, were just as dismayed as everyone else when they heard of the fire and the pressing need to somehow move the tent from Dubai to Virginia. Wolf Trap, they knew, had a $2 million fund raising need even before the fire; without some help its 1982 season would definitely be in trouble.
What happened next is unclear, though it is thought that the ambassador immediately approached his government. In any case, Ambassador Fayfal al-Hujaylan suddenly came forth with the offer that rescued Wolf Trap: Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) would assume all costs for packing and transporting the tent - to the tune of $100,000.
"Its very clear," the ambassador said, "that there is a strong feeling among people throughout the United States that Wolf Trap's Filene Center should be rebuilt. We are very pleased to offer our support as a gesture of international concern for one of the world's true treasures."
Less than six weeks after the fire, as a result, dozens of crates containing the aluminum building components were airlifted to New York's LaGuardia airport - on behalf of Saudia by Air France, which had a scheduled flight linking Dubai to New York, and which had room for the bulky cargo.
Arriving in New York at 10 p.m. on May 14, the 45-ton shipment was transferred to a four-truck convoy; six hours later the convoy reached the Wolf Trap grounds and about 6 a.m. May 15, some 30 workers assembled in the dawn light to begin unloading the crates. In the meantime, an army of volunteers had rallied to the cause, ready to contribute time and muscle. Volunteers, for example, helped bolt the tent’s aluminum arches together in the parking lot, before cranes lifted them into position. Throughout the process, volunteers worked hand in hand with paid workers hired by Sprung.
By May 28, the structure was up, and on May 29, construction began on the stage and scaffolding. Equipped with the latest sound and lighting capabilities, the new theater, surprisingly, could accommodate all scheduled performances for the season with only one exception: the New York City Opera, which requires a "fly gallery" for raising and lowering scenery.
While the work proceeded at a breakneck pace, contributions from 6,000 sources topped $1 million. Most contributions were in the $10 to $25 range, but there was one donation of seven cents from a child's piggy bank. Even local department stores donated percentages of a day's sales, and various clubs and individuals held bake sales and sold T-shirts to raise money.
In thanks for what Ed Corn described as "the most astonishing outpouring of grassroots support I've ever seen," Wolf Trap decided to inaugurate the 1982 season with a free "thank you" concert.
Unfortunately, June 13 was cold and rainy — no evening for picnics under the stars. As a result the crowd that turned out to hear the U.S. Air Force Band open the center was sparse. Still, to the Wolf Trap Staff and its supporters, the scene was amazing. "On May 4 this was a field," one said. "Right," said another. "So let’s hear it for the Saudis. They're the ones who came to the rescue."