Ballet AZ Blog

Gwen’s Angels: 1999-2000 Ballet Crisis

Gwen’s Angels: 1999-2000 Ballet Crisis

As we prepare to celebrate Ib’s 20th anniversary with our Dance With Me Gala, it caused me to pause and think about how far this company has come over the past 20 years. I want to take a moment and share a story that is not well-known: how Ballet Arizona was saved.

In June of 1999, Ballet Arizona made headlines that it had missed payroll and had a debt of over $800,000. The Ballet struggled until September 2000, when it recognized it needed $60,000 for the next payroll and $300,000 more in the next few weeks. Without these funds, it would be forced to shut the doors for good. Starting with a press conference, the Ballet launched a desperate fundraising appeal to the community. 

I asked Ballet Arizona Chairman Emerita, Gwen Hillis, who led our organization during this crisis, to think back to that time.

For those who may not know Gwen, she has been a monumental part of Ballet Arizona’s history. After joining the Board of Directors in 1993, she was elected Board Chair in May 1999, just as the crisis hit. She also became the Executive Director and Director of Development, serving as a volunteer in these two roles for an entire year. Throughout her association with Ballet Arizona, she has chaired 4 galas, including the miracle gala in 2000. She takes her greatest pride in hiring Artistic Director, Ib Andersen. 

In Gwen’s words, here are just some of the stories of her “Angels” that helped keep our doors open…


How can the Ballet adequately express thanks to someone who volunteered hours and days of their time and talent to turn it around? Alan Young stepped into a mess as a volunteer, who normally was paid for this work, and brought clarity and a plan to a situation that seemed hopeless. Alan did everything from a deep financial analysis to scripting and directing the Herberger fundraiser. He was also instrumental in identifying/recruiting the Ballet’s Executive Director. How do you thank an angel?

I can’t remember how I ended up in Dick Whitney’s office when the crisis hit but it was a lucky day for Ballet Arizona. I was a 40+ year old businesswoman who knew little about non-profits, fundraising or the City of Phoenix. Dick took the time to give me a 101 class in the realities of how things were done in Phoenix and made calls that opened doors to community leaders.

My husband, Durrell called Barbara Barrett to ask her for a donation as she was on her way out the door to the airport. She said if he could be there in 10 minutes she’d give him a check. This was on a day I was feeling the financial situation was hopeless. It wasn’t just her donation that made her an angel it was her generous, spontaneous gesture that gave me hope there could be other angels.

Can you imagine what went through my mind when I got a call from a stranger who asked me if the Ballet “would be interested in money” from an organization recently started by golfers? He sounded sincere and the money drop was at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. I gratefully accepted Howard Hirsch’s offer for the Ballet to become one of the new 5 Arts Circle beneficiaries. Over the next 5 months 5 Arts contributed over $20,000 to the Ballet. I never told Howard that the first check was the final $5,000 we needed to make payroll that week. Yes, “we were interested”!

Jane Jozoff had been and continues to be one of our biggest cheerleader in the arts community. She introduced me to Shelley Cohn who helped me recruit Carol Whiteman, our largest donor during the crisis. Jane was responsible for getting a $25,000 donation from Dial Corporation and that helped make payroll in our darkest hour. She has been my ballet angel and supporter for 20 years.

One of our Board members told me she had taken Mrs. Kieckhefer to the ballet, I’m not even sure if it was Ballet Arizona, but it was enough encouragement for me to apply for a grant from the Kieckhefer Foundation. I hoped I would hear something soon since we were living week to week on new donations. Many months went by with no response. One morning I opened an envelope to find a check for $50,000 from the Kieckhefer Foundation. I was shocked; it was so unexpected! I called everyone in the office together and as I waved the envelope another piece of paper came fluttering to the floor. It was a check for $25,000 from the Morris Foundation. The room was silent then burst into cheers and tears. It had been a long time since we had something to celebrate. I never thanked Gene Polk for taking a chance on Ballet Arizona when we need it most.

You have friends that you might not see for years and when you do it’s like no time has passed. They are the special friends that you can count on. I’ve known Steve and Francie Hanson since I was 19 and they have been those friends. They were always there to help me with the Ballet from coming to galas to donating auction items. Francie loves the dancers, she is Ginger Rogers in her own mind, she even had a wedding at her home for one of our dancers, Michelle Vagi. During one of the Ballet’s darkest days we received a surprise check for $25,000 from ON Semiconductor…where Steve was the CEO.

September 2000

I had a press conference on a Friday afternoon in September to announce that the Ballet would have to close if we couldn’t raise $60,000 by Wednesday and an additional $300,000 over the next couple of weeks. Later that afternoon I got a call from a mysterious man who said he would donate the $60,000 if we didn’t meet Wednesday’s goal. He wouldn’t give me his name so we arranged a time that he would call on Wednesday. He was so mysterious that I was afraid he might not be real so I didn’t tell anyone that we’d met our first milestone in 3 hours. We did meet our $60,000 goal and my mystery man called on Wednesday as promised. When I told him we had met the goal he said he would still contribute $25,000. My mystery man was Jerry Harden. He had never been to a ballet but believed Arizona “deserved a professional ballet company. Jerry has been to many ballets since then and is a Ballet Arizona Trustee Emeritus for his service on the Ballet Board and his continuing financial support.

I still have the handwritten letter Kax Herberger sent me with her check for $60,000, the amount required to meet our first milestone to keep the doors open. Her letter gave me advice, encouragement and an offer that she would consider another donation if she saw progress in our fundraising. Before that, Kax had generously shared her experience, insight and observations about the Ballet with me sitting on her desert patio. They weren’t always easy conversations. She cared about the ballet but was concerned about it’s financial future. I was grateful that it wasn’t necessary to ask her to consider that second donation. I’m not sure if Kax knew that the Herberger Board donated the theatre for a fundraiser. Their gift was to raise money for the dancers if we closed or for Ballet Arizona if we stayed open. The event was Ib’s first Arizona performance, hosted by Patrick Swayze, and was the beginning of the turnaround. Kax was our angel and my role model for responsible and committed philanthropy.

One of the worst experiences of my life was meeting with the dancers to tell them we were announcing an appeal for donations to the community and if we couldn’t raise the necessary money we would close the Ballet. They had given everything to their art and their audience and their leaders had failed to perform for them. Their attitude at that moment and all during the crisis was my inspiration. They wanted to know how they could help and immediately started brainstorming ideas. The first thing they decided to do was stay after rehearsals to answer the phone in case anyone called with a donation. That first night “a woman” called with a donation of $10,000!!! That call at that time changed the morale for the entire company. I never thanked “the women” or told her how her generosity set the tone for our campaign. I never even learned until years later that our angel had been one of our dancers, Giselle Doepker’s mother.

I don’t know how Steve Carr appeared on the scene as our PR Angel when the $360K crisis hit but it was a lucky day for Ballet Arizona. Steve sent out press releases in Phoenix and Tucson, orchestrated press conferences, got us on TV morning shows, radio shows….even sports radio… and took us through Crisis Communications 101. The public responded and we raised the $60,000 we needed in 3 days to keep the doors open and the remaining $300,000 in the following week. It was a miracle that would never have happened without Steve’s expertise and commitment to keeping the Ballet alive for Arizona.

I’m glad no one told Blair Long that it was impossible to have a gala for 300+ people in 8 days that included an elegant champagne reception and a dessert buffet with no money and no support. Somehow this 25 year old student/ catering employee made it happen. Years later I wrote a letter of reference for Blair. I didn’t go into the details of his miracle because no one would have believed it.

There were many angels that I wish I had personally thanked. Tina Hart and David Maniatis each donated $25,000 which pushed us over our $360,000 goal. I hope they see the great investment they made for Arizona.

Carol Whiteman is the Archangel of Ballet Arizona. Carol’s first angel appearance was her $100,000 gift to the campaign that leveraged the $25,000 donation from Tina Hart and from David Maniatis that took us over our $360,000 goal. Carol loved the ballet from childhood when her father took her to New York to see performances. She had gotten more involved in theatre over the years but when she heard the ballet was going to close she remembered those days and also the love that her deceased husband, Jack, had for ballet. The announced closing date was Jack’s birthday and she thought “what a lovely gift that would be to Jack’s memory.” This angel kept giving to the Ballet, not just with treasury but with years of service on the Board contributing her experience in arts management and her mischievous smile and contagious laugh.

About Executive Director Samantha Turner

samantha turner

Samantha Turner is a leader in both the non-profit and corporate sectors, with expertise in marketing and business management. Before Samantha was appointed executive director, she served three years as Ballet Arizona’s director of marketing, achieving record sales revenues twice during that tenure.

Prior to joining Ballet Arizona, Samantha held leadership roles in both non-profit and Fortune 500 companies. Most recently she served as head of business operations and finance for CAP21, a New York-based non-profit performing arts organization. Samantha moved into that role after a year-long sabbatical, immersed in acting, singing and dance training that allowed her to gain a deep understanding of the arts and artists. She integrated those insights with her 20 years of Fortune 500 leadership experience, to transition to a career focused on the strategic management of arts organizations.

Samantha’s for-profit career includes high-level marketing and business management roles at Aflac, Assurant and other organizations of national and regional scope. In addition to her professional experience, Samantha holds MBAs in marketing and international business/ecommerce, and an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism.


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