This past May, The Kehrein Center for the Arts hosted eight young songwriters from Chicago, who performed their original songs, competing to win $10,000. The idea for the songwriting contest came from Terry Toth, founding board member at the KCA. On the day of the competition, Toth sat down with Cameron Purnell, CEO of Black Sheep Management LLC, the production company which helped organize the event. The following is a recap of their interview (plus some background information) about the inception of the KCA, and the memory of a concert 40 years ago that sparked the songwriting contest idea in Toth’s heart.
As the founding chair of Catalyst Schools, Terry Toth has been involved in Austin since the school opened over 15 years ago. At that time, the attached theater now known as the Kehrein Center was “a shell of an auditorium.” The theater originally opened in 1954 as a part of St. Catherine of Siena High School. But when Siena moved out of Austin in 1971, the theater fell into disrepair.
The question of what to do with the space, which is one of the best examples of mid-century modern architecture in Chicago, was answered by the “the persistence of Sharon Morgan. [She said] we needed to build that auditorium out!” Toth said. Morgan is Kehrein Center’s current co-managing director.
“We needed a place for our scholars — for the music program with Ravinia, and we needed a place for them to graduate and walk across the stage,” Toth said.
The subsequent 10-year project rallied community leaders, funders, and elected officials. $5 million dollars was raised in order to renovate the Kehrein Center. Opening in May of 2019, the pandemic gave Toth and other leaders at Catalyst Schools time to think through the creation of a separate foundation — the Kehrein Center for the Arts — to bring performing arts to the Austin community. The foundation began to form as a separate entity in the summer of 2022.
As the Kehrein Center’s four core values are currently being finalized with input from the community, Toth and the board of directors brainstormed how to put these emerging values to life. Two of the values — entrepreneurship, and human expression — were drawn upon in the creation of the May 12 contest. Musicians came to mind for exemplifying these values, as musicians are entrepreneurs, and express themselves through music, according to Toth.
But it was Toth’s personal experiences of the power of music that originally sparked the idea for a songwriting contest.
Toth explained that 40 years ago, one of his three jobs was working in main stage security at concerts. While standing in the pit at his first concert in Comiskey Park, Toth said that Simon and Garfunkel were playing behind him, while he faced 40,000 fans. Toth recalls the experience:
“All of a sudden they played the first three or four notes and the audience recognized the song and started singing. And for the next two and a half hours everybody sang every word of every song. You saw the music really touch people. Touch their hearts. Touch their soul — the fabric of who they were. To me, music became so powerful at that moment.”
With this experience in mind, Toth said he wanted the Kehrein Center to be a place where artists from the community would have a platform, and a stage in which to express themselves, and their human dignity. With entrepreneurship in mind, the songwriting contest also provided practical financial education, as well as practice working with a production company. The idea was to help musicians refine their craft.
“The focus of the foundation is to bring the arts to the Austin community,” Toth said. “It’s been our major focus over the past four years, and this program tonight is part of that.”
Article by Sophie Vodvarka