Combo Bravo? Combo Boo?

San Diego's arts funding umbrella

The curtain rises, and a young man dressed as an Elizabethan page walks to the center of the stage. He unrolls a long parchment scroll with gold lettering, and proclaims: "Let's welcome here this night some most honorable leaders of COMBO, the Combined Arts and Education Council of San Diego County: its founder, Deborah Szekely Mazanti, a current vice president — " (she comes onstage — vibrant and energetic — to swelling applause); "General Victor Krulak, who finds time in his busy schedule at the Union-Tribune to also serve as vice president" (the General marches on, several men in the audience rise and salute); "and finally, the president of COMBO, known to all of you as a patron of the arts these many years, Michael Ibs Gonzalez" (the towering Gonzalez, archetypal seigneur walks on to applause), COMBO BRAVO!! cries the page. COMBO BRAVO! cry all the men and women, in formal dress, in the special boxes. But from the rest of the audience, here and there, rise dissident voices. What! How can that be? Who dares not shout "COMBO BRAVO"?

Who, indeed? The problem with raising one's voice too stridently against COMBO, on whose board are representatives of San DIego's most socially prominent families, is that that it is not likely to be heard — at least, that was the experience of some dissidents with whom I spoke.

Before reviewing their complaints, a look at COMBO and its leaders. A volunteer organization, COMBO was founded in 1965 for the purpose of raising funds for the arts in San Diego. As of last November, it raised since its inception more than 2.4 million dollars. Its goal for 1972-1973 was $750,000, and the year's total has not yet been announced. Funds come from a drive in the spring (aimed mostly at business and industry), city and county grants, and three auctions. Among 12 beneficiaries, the principals are the San Diego Opera, the San Diego Symphony, San Diego Ballet, Old Globe Theater, La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, and San Diego Civic Light Opera.

Many of the 75 people on COMBO's Board of Directors wield power in San Diego — including Mayor Pete Wilson, but probably none are so key to both the COMBO and the San Diego scenes as Mrs. Mazzanti, Mr. Gonzalez, and Gen. Krulak, Sharing a willingness to give great quantities of time and energy to the cause of the arts, they also move in a similar, somewhat rarefied realm of affluence and influence. But they came along very different routes.

"I've lived here all my life," Gonzalez said. "I attended city schools, was elected student body president of San Diego High." He graduated from Stanford University ("my mother's and aunt's alma mater") and Harvard Law School ("where I met my wife, Elizabeth Sibley of Rochester New York"). He is a member of the law firm of Luce, Hamilton, Forward, and Scripps, his specialty is tax law.

"My family was always interested in the arts — painting, music, literature — that's the kind of home we were raised in." Were his parents artists? "No, my father was a merchant. None of us could do a darn thing, but we were always admiring those who can."

Gonzalez has served as president of the Fine Arts Society and the San Diego Symphony Orchestra — and now COMBO — and belongs to the boards of the YMCA and the Natural History Museum. Elizabeth Gonzalez was president of the San Diego Ballet. Does he see his family's role as "noblesse oblige"? "I don't know what you call it," Gonzalez smiled. "I just know it's hard work."

Mrs. Mazzanti has lived in San Diego fro the past 33 years — she opened Rancho de la Puerta in Tecate in 1940, and the luxurious Golden Door in Escondido in 1959 — but she was born in Brooklyn and spent part of her childhood in Tahiti.

"Every summer, when we lived in the States, we'd go to health camps. My mother was terribly interested in ... well, today they use such ponderous terms, they'd say, 'developing human potential,' but she was interested in striving, living," Mrs. Mazzanti explained.

She married Edmond Szekely, who had been director of the British International Health and Education Center, and they started the Essene School at Rancho de la Puerta. "Our guests came to study the Essen teachings, to lead the simple life, aware of the forces of nature. We ate all our meals in silence, began the day with meditation — we had to be on top of the mountain each morning to see the last star. But in time, people began missing the lectures and attending the exercise classes, and it evolved into a spa."

In addition to running her two spas and serving on COMBO, Mrs. Mazzanti has been active in the Save the Children Federation, is a member of the President's Conference on Physical Fitness and Sports, and has long been affiliated with the Old Globe. She also has two teenage children — and has recently been remarried, to Dr. Vincent Mazzanti, a psychiatrist.

"I've taken outrageous advantage of being a woman all these years, and I wouldn't change it any way shape or form. I've been enormously successful in a man's world ,often the only woman serving on a board. I never went to college, you know. I got married instead and now UCSD has a new Board of Overseers, about 60 of the most important people in town, with four or five women — and I'm the vice chairperson!" She laughed exuberantly — it seems Deborah Mazzanti does everything exuberantly, she is vitality incarnate — and admitted that it's harder being a woman, but still... She thinks the women's movement is creating overdivisions.

On her many administrative activities, Mrs. Mazzanti commented, "I never have any problem making decisions, and in an average week I make 200-300. So, if 50 are wrong, or even 100..." she shrugged. "But if you only make five decisions, and half are wrong, then you've done nothing!"

"The great pleasure in life is doing," Mrs. Mazzanti concluded, as she sat down to untie her sneakers, having finished a morning of exercise and three appointments, and now preparing to leave for the Golden Door. "But some people don't know that — they think the pleasure is to do as little as possible."

Victor ("Brute") Krulak, the president of Copley Press, was born in Denver, and after being commissioned from Annapolis as a Marine second lieutenant in 1934, he moved right up the military ladder; service in Shanghai; sea duty; staff officer, battalion and regimental commander in World War II; division chief of staff in Korea, commanding general of MCRD here in San Diego; and special assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on counterinsurgency in the early '60s. His steady ascent was halted just when he was rumored to be the next Commandant of the Marine Corps, in the mid-'60s.

One reason for his fall from favor may have been the escalating problems caused by his unfailing optimism about Vietnam. On Feb. 7, 1963, for example, Krulak reported that real progress was being made, and Vietcong moral deteriorating... On May 9, 1963, he reported all trends favorable... and so forth. It was such sagacity that moved Averill Harriman to tell Krulak, in a strategy session in 1963, that in the several years he had known him, he (Krulak) had always been wrong.

Since his return to civilian life, Krulak has donated much of his time to civic organizations; in addition to his participation in COMBO, he is president of the zoo, serves on the boards of the Kiwanis Club and the San Diego Hospital Association, and lectures the Republican Women's Club in Coronado. And he tries, in his way, to do something about our societal ills —  as he sees them. Declaring that the youth of America is threatened by the Students for a Democratic Society who seek "to promote sexual license, use of narcotics, perversion, and bodily uncleanliness," Krulak utilizes the principles of counterinsurgency an serves on the Boy Scouts' Board of Directors.

We have applied to COMBO for funding for the past four years, and we have never been able to get in print what are the criteria for not funding us. I can tell you there are none — it's politics," declared Robert Mahon, codirector of the California Ballet.

The history of the California Ballet and the San Diego Ballet is one of bitter feuding. Twice, the Mahons joined the San Diego Ballet; twice, they were fired. The second time was in 1971, when Elizabeth Gonzalez was head of the board, and Maxine Mahon was artistic director. After the split, the Mahons founded the California Ballet Company.

The two companies are drastically different. The San Diego Ballet — which has known financial troubles always, but has funding to save it — has some truly stellar principals: Dame Sonia Arova, Thor Sutowski, and Jillana; so the operation has a great deal of panache, as well as solid artistic merit. The California Ballet, with no funding, has had to struggle from the start, but has achieved a good reputation. "It hasn't been like falling off a log, you know," said Mahon, who frequently reminds you that he's had a hard fight. Today, their ballet school — larger in numbers than the San Diego Ballet School — has seven branches in the county, and they do lecture-demonstrations in the public schools, witnessed by 150,000 students in the past five years.

"We played to a paying audience of 18,000 this past year, as compared to 3000 for the San Diego Ballet," said Mahon.

The Mahons are convinced that the only factor keeping them out of COMBO is the Gonzalezes' prejudice against them. They know there has been mention of their not being nonprofit, but they insist they are — that the school is separate from the California Ballet Company and Association — and that their funding by the National Endowment of the Arts ($6800 this year) is proof of their nonprofit standing.

I asked Gonzalez. "All I can say is that their application was very carefully reviewed," he declared. "The feeling was that they were interlocking in their activities between the association and the school and the production company. They will have a full and fair and complete hearing this year."

Another critic — his name withheld — took a stand against COMBO. Specifically, his criticism deals with a municipal code which stipulates that the beneficiary organization of any fund drive must receive at least 50% of the gross — and one day, in COMBO history, when they did not satisfy that code, he said. More generally, however, he attacked COMBO for its vulnerability and its hauteur.

The day was September 14, 1971. The financial report filed with the police department reads, "Opening Night at the Circus — total receipts: $20,027.50 — total expense: $20,003 — total to be distributed among 10 beneficiary organizations: $24.50."

"I tried to tell them that they had to follow certain guidelines in their contract with the circus; I knew what was going to happen from past experience," said this dissident who had been in charge of giving police department permits for such activities. "But they thought they were above it all, and I was too low on the totem pole for them to even listen to."

"Ordinarily, I would've prosecuted. They didn't approach giving 50% of the gross to the beneficiaries! I filled out a report, but COMBO is too powerful in this town. It was slapped back on my desk, and the chief of police said, 'Forget it!'"

It may be argued that every fundraising organization has its fiascoes. But one of the more interesting aspects of this one, in line with the above speaker's experience, is how it was covered in the press. Several days after the event, the San Diego Union printed a story stating that COMBO's ten beneficiaries would share a bonus of more than $5000 from the circus.

No, said Gonzalez, of course he had no idea where that information had come from — but he never believes anything he reads in the papers anyway. However, he hastily amended COMBO has had very good press. That's hardly mysterious, I remarked, since the press is General Krulak. Gonzalez laughed.

But he did wish people would not be so petty. "We try not to be petty in our COMBO operation — we try to look at the whole picture. I spend so many hours of my time" — his voice was rising — "I'm a professional man, and time is my business. And the hours and hours of time that I have spent and my compatriots have spent — such as Jim West who's a certified public accountant; Bill Lockmoeller, who also has a responsible position; 'Brute' Krulak — all of these people have given on an average of 6 to 10 hours a week. sometimes we don't get thanks for this, and that's all right too, because we're not looking for thanks. But we do resent a little people's being petty and picayune."

One thoughtful, well-tempered criticism of COMBO has recently been aired publicly — that of Dave Thompson, in an article in San Diego Magazine entitled, "After COMBO, what?" After examining the general aspirations and the specific budgets — past, present, and projected — of the San Diego Symphony, the San Diego Opera, the San Diego Ballet, and the Old Globe Theater, Thompson concludes that COMBO will be unable to provide the kind of financial support that is being asked for, in these groups' drive to become major performing arts organization. And he lays the fault with COMBO for not assuming its full responsibility — as fund-raiser for the arts of San Diego County — by taking a long-range view of their needs.

"There is no concept within COMBO of what the total need is; they have never taken all the parts of the picture and put them into a frame," Thompson told me. "I'm not saying COMBO shouldn't exist. We need them, and they're the best we've got — but that's not enough."

"We're not the Great God, and we're not Big Brother," countered Mrs. Mazzanti, when asked about Thompson's criticism. "Our beneficiaries want to be responsible for themselves, and that's what gives one pride in oneself — it's so important."

"It's like being responsible for your own health," she continued. "All the prepaid doctors in Medicare can't equal the person who takes that morning walk in the park."

Mrs. Mazzanti agreed COMBO should encourage more experimental theater — the Crystal Palace, for example, if they could meet the criteria — and more black and Chicano groups. She is proud of its being the second largest fund-raising organization in the country; but of course there is room for improvement, she added, and their bylaws are in constant flux.

"If you quote me on this, I could lose my job," said the prominent arts administrator — consequently nameless. "I don't know what kind of fuss these people might make, and they're very powerful.

"If COMBO thinks one ballet company deserves more funding and another less, that's their prerogative," he explained. "But to give a company nothing that serves as many audiences as does California Ballet seems odd — and I think that's hard to defend when you're dealing with public funds."

Pointing out the frequent procession of new managers and directors, common to the history of both the San Diego Symphony and the San Diego Ballet, he continued, "There's something about how these boards in San Diego operate which is different from other boards across the country. You see, it's all the same small group — the guy who is head of COMBO has been head of the symphony, and head of the ballet, or his wife has."

"And their understanding of how they use their power is either immature or not very sophisticated."

"You know, a professional fund-raiser once told me, 'There are two cities that all fund-raisers dread: Kansas City and Buffalo.' Like San Diego, those cities have a tremendous turnover in the leadership of the arts; and they both have a small number of families that have had power and wealth for some time, very tight societies that have never expanded or let in substantial amounts of new blood. A sort of ossification happens, and there's a loss of contact in how you deal with people."

He speculated that a similar situation exists in San Diego. "That isn't to say that they aren't very nice, generous people who work hard for the arts — but again, it's a question of understanding how one uses one's power."

An Interview with the General

General Krulak: O.K., let 'er rip!

C.B.: What moved you to join COMBO?

General: I felt that there was a real need for a federated type of fund-raising campaign to support all the arts.

C.B.: Are you familiar with Thompson's criticism of COMBO, and would you agree with him?

General: I feel that COMBO in its ideal image would do many things for all the arts, things which they have tried to do in a very halting way because of limited resources. Such as common mailing lists — a common place where they can all have their offices — common files, with perhaps common stenographic assistants — common reproduction assistants. They are crawling very slowly, and they see the day when they would like to be running.

C.B.: Were you aware of Supervisor Lou Conde's remarks, printed in the Union last spring, suggesting that the county should not be giving funds to COMBO since it is mainly a wealthy people's organization?

General: No.

C.B.: Well, what about that criticism — that COMBO is something of a closed club, a select group of the leisured patron class?

General: Anyone who could walk into the television auction and see the people who were doing it and still declare that it wasn't a cross-section of San Diego has myopia. There were 450 people, and they were all working together in a common project. No, I should say that it certainly couldn't be an exclusive club — it took almost 500 people.

C.B.: Were they members of COMBO?

General: They're just members of the community ... just members of the community, who were enthusiastic about helping.

C.B.: What does it take to be a member of COMBO?

General: What does it take to be a member of COMBO.... That's an interesting question. Members of COMBO are only organizations, not people. Not people.

C.B.: What does it take to join the body of COMBO, the 75 or so people who are on the Board of Trustees?

General: They come from the beneficiaries.

C.B.: Could anyone who was interested —

General: Participate? Oh, yes.

C.B.: But join the board?

General: Well, I don't know exactly how they got there — I know where they came from, but not how they got there. You should ask Mr. Gonzalez.

C.B.: How did you get there?

General: How did I get there.... I was active in the symphony, and that's how I got there. That's how I got there.

C.B.: Are you familiar with the situation involving the two ballet companies — San Diego Ballet and California Ballet — and the reasons for not funding California Ballet?

General: When I was president of COMBO, in 1971, we made a determined effort to get these ballet companies to become one. People are not anxious to surrender their autonomy. But I think one day there will be a ballet in San Diego, one ballet. Until then there will be problems, but problems are really the fabric in which we live and I don't worry too much about it, because they'll solve them. They'll solve them.

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