Attorneys have put on a good show for Civic Theatre over the years



By Cynthia Price

Legal News

Incoming Grand Rapids Civic Theatre (GRCT) President Bill Scarbrough may not be a lawyer, but he has a strong connection to the legal profession, and he has a lot to say about their contributions over the years.

Scarbrough, the Chief Operating Officer for the law firm Bodman LLP in Detroit, says, “In the five or six years I’ve been involved, I’ve found that the lawyer members of the board are particularly dedicated and active – they’ve really embraced this cultural institution. Maybe it’s the stage aspect, but they’re not even all trial lawyers! They and their law firms are very active and generous supporters of the theater.”

A comprehensive look at the role attorneys have played comes from another non-lawyer, Past President Sue Murphy.

She says attorneys’ service has gone beyond what might be most predictable.   “The most obvious is helping in legal matters,” she notes. “Sometimes we’ve had employee issues, and when we purchased the Wenham Building on Division having legal advice was very valuable.

“It’s also been very good for our fund-raising. When the development person asks for names of potential donors, attorneys have been able to supply a lot of information because of all the contacts they have.”

Murphy, a CPA who taught at Aquinas, goes on to say that  lawyers have consistently proven very adept at reviewing financial statements and evaluating financial matters. “People get afraid to ask questions, like, ‘Why did this cost so much?’, feeling they might not be qualified to understand it. But lawyers feel more comfortable with finances, which is such an important part of the oversight function of being on a board.”

Finally, Murphy says, “Attorneys have always taken leadership positions on the Civic Theatre board. A lot of times people want to be on the board, but not serve as an officer, but attorneys have been very, very good about stepping up.”

Right now, that willingness to lead is evident in a look at the officers for the upcoming year.

The President-Elect is Chuck Burpee of Warner Norcross and Judd, which has a long and rich history of service to, and support of, GRCT. Burpee comments, “I began attending Civic Theatre shows in 1970 when I took my now-wife there on high school dates.” Though he was in a number of Gilbert and Sullivan productions in high school and sang in various choirs including the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club while pursuing his bachelors, masters and Juris Doctor degrees, he has not performed since graduating from law school in 1979.

The patent lawyer, formerly chair of Warner’s Technology and Intellectual Property Practice Group, says that what drives him to devote his time to GRCT is the excellence of the theater itself. “Civic Theatre is a community jewel,” he states. “We are the fifth largest community theatre in the country. Our staff, shows, actors, and other volunteers are simply the best there are. We also operate the largest community theatre school in the country. Our alumni are involved in theatre throughout the country, and a number currently are performing on Broadway.”
Others new officers include Chuck Smeester of the William-Charles Search Group as Vice-President; Peggy Murphy, a Shareholder at Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols and Carter PC (a CPA and consulting firm which advertises it offers “accounting litigation support services”) who will be treasurer; and Matt Vicari of Miller Johnson, who will serve as secretary.

The well-known Vicari, who was Grand Rapids Bar Association President in 2008-2009, has a very personal reason for being on the board.

“I got involved because when I had my first child, [Miller Johnson colleague] Jon March recommended Civic Theatre's summer theater camp to me,” Vicari says. “My son Will started going to the camp when he was five years old, and since then he’s starred in a bunch of different shows there — that culminated when he was the Ghost of Christmas Past. He’s also been an intern for [Associate Director] Penny Notter, even done hair and wigs and makeup on the production side.

“Next week Will’s going off to Webster University on a musical theater scholarship.

“So once some of the other members of Miller Johnson did their turn, I figured, I might as well try to give back by serving on the board.”

Each year Miller Johnson buys out one performance of GRCT’s Christmas show and invites its clients and staff. Vicari says, “I think we’ve done that for over 15 years, and people look forward to it all year.” This year that show will be the Sound of Music, which Sue Murphy says is the play that made her fall in love with theater in her youth.

Miller Johnson has supplied numerous board members and supporters over the years — including Murphy’s attorney husband Lee who served on the GRCT’s three-person endowment board. But the man who first encouraged Vicari to get his kids involved, Jon March, stands out.

March has not only attended the theater school, acted in plays, done pro bono work, and served as President of the GRCT board, but he is also the organization’s greatest cheerleader.
Comments Bill Scarbrough, “So many people in the area are zealots for Civic Theatre, which I think speaks volumes about it — and Jon March is chief among them.”

March is on the GRCT’s Past Presidents Council, along with two other attorneys, both from Warner Norcross and Judd: Malcolm Cummin, who is “long-retired” according to March, and Wallson G. “Wally” Knack.

“Like with any organization,” March comments, “the Civic Theatre board benefits from lawyers’ thorough thinking processes and good judgment.”

Since he knows much about recent history, March also acknowledges the lead role taken by Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge.

And indeed, Scarbrough was COO at Smith Haughey when he first moved back to West Michigan six years ago. “Smith Haughey has been a long-time supporter of Civic Theatre and the firm knew I was interested in the arts, so they asked me if I would be interested and I jumped at the opportunity.”

SHRR’s Tom McCarthy, a trial lawyer handling both civil and criminal cases, is on the current board, but was not reached for comment by press time.

Everyone involved sings the praises of the GRCT’s professionalism. Scarbrough, who will commute back from Detroit for his presidential term, comments, “I’ve been blown away by the quality of the productions – I think they’re Broadway quality, and couldn’t believe they were volunteer actors. And the sets, the costumes, the lighting, everything is top notch.”

Vicari attests to the qualify of the school theatre program, which serves both children and adults, and adds, “Frankly it’s one of the best community theaters in the country – we’re so lucky to have it.”

Burpee says, “Our coming season is the most exciting and the most ambitious that we have ever undertaken. Shows include... Clybourne Park (winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and the 2012 Tony Award), Les Miserables, and 9 to 5.  We are one of five community theatres given the first opportunity to present Les Mis.”