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Merryman Bustles Along at the Helm of Symphony

October 27, 1985|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

The choice of entertainers for the gala reception and inaugural concert Saturday for the new Symphony Hall may leave some aficionados of classical music cold, but it is vintage Det Merryman.

Merryman, elected in August for a second year as president of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra Assn., came to the symphony after having achieved great success as president of the San Diego Pops. He rejuvenated the summer pops concerts with nightly displays of fireworks, bursting to the hand-clapping sounds of John Philip Sousa marches.

So it's no surprise that the entertainment lineup for the symphony's inaugural bash emphasizes show biz rather than classical music. The performers, including such entertainers as Toni Tennille, Oscar Peterson, Joel Gray and Ben Vereen, were chosen for the widest possible appeal.

Merryman thinks the choice is just right. "The opening of Symphony Hall is not the opening of our season, and should not be confused with it," he said. "This is going to be one of the major halls on the West Coast. We chose a combination of musical styles from the community intentionally to represent the types of music to be presented in the hall over the next 50 years. . . . We have jazz, pop, classical. It's like Carnegie Hall . . . which is home to many kinds of musical performances."

Merryman has much of the entrepreneur and competitor about him. According to some symphony board members, that's just what the once-financially ailing symphony needs. He is also an optimist. "The symphony's time is coming," Merryman said. "Everything is on a pendulum."

Right now, Merryman--who volunteers his time as president--lives, breathes and sleeps the San Diego Symphony. Like his predecessor, banker Lou Cumming, he has made the symphony a priority and somehow squeezes in family and work between the orchestra's demands.

"Lou got the symphony back in the newspapers in a positive mode," Merryman said. "It was the first time . . . the line didn't start, 'The financially troubled San Diego Symphony.' You used to think that was the name of the orchestra."

Merryman gained attention when he resurrected the symphony's summer pops concerts, canceled in 1982 after losing about $500,000 the year before. As a major orchestra, the symphony could not continue without the pops, Merryman reasoned, but it also could not survive with pops, if the concerts continued to lose money.

The day after the symphony's board voted to give Merryman the go-ahead to create a new style of pops, Merryman and his family left on vacation. They flew to Boston, where they studied the Boston Pops operation, then saw pops concerts in Washington. "We spent the whole vacation asking, 'How do we do this to make it work and make money?' " he said.

When Merryman returned, he decided to tailor the pops to San Diego's strengths--the water, the outdoors. Guest stars were eliminated. The money saved went into fireworks. "It's the best money we ever spent," he said. "The fireworks got everybody on their feet stomping and clapping to a Sousa march. They leave feeling good."

M.B. (Det) Merryman, 43, never planned to become involved in the arts. He began his career--or his first career--studying politics at California State University at Los Angeles, where he met his wife. "He was the one person on campus who knew what congressional district he lived in," said Crystal Merryman. Within a week of meeting Crystal, Merryman told her mother that he was sure he would marry her daughter. Two years later, he did.

"It's the challenge that motivates him," Crystal Merryman said. "Once he's committed, he's totally committed. It's very exciting. We've been married for 21 years, and I've never been bored for a minute. When a person is as committed as he is, it almost takes over. We circumvent that as a family by being involved. We try to share it. Our daughter works at the pops, for instance."

Merryman never finished college, but after leaving school he worked for nine years in politics, serving for two years as executive director of the California Democratic State Central Committee. He later changed course, moving to San Diego 15 years ago to become sales manager for Vacation Village Hotel. He left the hotel a year later to start his own marketing firm, and then moved into publishing with the purchase of D&D, which put out 12 senior citizens publications and Applause magazine. D&D is now defunct.

Merryman currently owns a travel agency, is a vice president of Performing Arts Network and is publisher of Performing Arts, the program magazine that is distributed at performances of the symphony, opera and other theaters. He also owns a typesetting firm and has independently presented such acts as Cleo Laine, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet in San Diego.

"He has one of the best talents I know of keeping several projects straight in his mind without dropping any of the pieces," Crystal Merryman said.

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