Orange County's Arts Maven Extraordinaire 22

Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Judy Morr Celebrates 30 Years

Judy Morr had overseen the operation of theater programming as general manager at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for 16 years when she heard about a new performing arts center opening in Orange County, California.

Tom Kendrick, Kennedy Center’s director of operations at the time, had been offered the job of executive director of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, later to become Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and he approached Morr to see if she was interested in being general manager of theaters.

“I felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of this new project,” Morr says, “with a chance to bring a building to life and to shape its future–to position Orange County’s voice as a leader in the arts world.”

There was another reason Morr was interested.

“My youngest daughter was thinking about college, and we thought the California school system would be a great place for her,” she says.

Morr interviewed with the Center’s President, Tim Strader, who offered her the job as general manager, and she took it.

The year was 1985, and Morr had her work cut out for her. The first building in what was to become the Center’s multi-theater campus was not completed. There was much to do to open Segerstrom Hall in the fall of 1986, and her #1 concern was programming.

“Normally, program planning for a performing arts center is a two-to-three-year process, and I had a year,” Morr says. “As it turned out, the first season took the shape of what I planned for the next 30 years: symphonic music, dance, Broadway shows, pop music, and choral music.”

And, as Morr recalls, there was the planning for what she called “the biggest party Orange County had ever seen.” She was right. Three thousand people attended the Center’s opening night, and people are still talking about it.

What followed was truly remarkable. The people in Orange County were hungry for the arts.

“We were sold out the first year, and it continued,” Morr says. “People were excited to be here, and it has continued to the present. You can see it when they stand and cheer for their favorite artists and performances.”

As it turned out, Morr has played a key role in the Center’s growth in becoming one of the nation’s finest arts organizations. Today, the three performance venues include Segerstrom Hall, Samueli Theater and the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, and the last parcel of vacant land is slated as the future home of the Orange County Museum of Art.

By overseeing the Center’s artistic programming, the scope of which is one of the most ambitious, eclectic and successful in the country, Morr has enticed a vast audience from throughout Orange County and beyond to enjoy first-rate Broadway, jazz, cabaret, chamber music, family entertainment, special events, and contemporary theater.

And, that’s not including the Center’s resident performing arts groups, which Morr has great respect for and admires their artistic contributions to the Center’s success.

“I have watched them grow, and it has been a remarkable journey,” she says. “Pacific Symphony has grown from a small, regional orchestra to one of quality and substance, recognized nationally.”

Of Pacific Chorale, she says, “You have to have a choral group represent the breadth of choral literature, and they have surpassed any other choral group in the country, in my mind. Together with Pacific Symphony, their performances are inspiring.”

“The Philharmonic Society of Orange County had a core group of supporters from the beginning, who believed that music was essential to their lives and to the lives of their children. They wanted to see the best orchestras in the world, and nothing could stop them. Thanks to them, the world’s finest orchestras have performed here.”

And, as Morr points out, it wasn’t until the opening of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in 2006 that Orange County audiences had the luxury of hearing Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale, as well as the world’s finest orchestras brought here by the Philharmonic, in a hall in which the beauty of these magnificent orchestras can be heard performing the world’s greatest music as their composers intended and imagined.

As to Broadway, Morr says it has been the mainstay for programming for Segerstrom Hall. The best Broadway has to offer has been presented at the Center, and audiences have loved and supported it.

Of all the performing arts offered at the Center, Morr had a particular passion for dance from the beginning.

“What was missing was a significant dance series in Southern California,” Morr says, “So my focus, after making sure the other art forms were in place, was to bring the most exciting national and international dance companies to our stage.”

To say she has been successful is an understatement. Nearly every leading dance company in the world has appeared at the Center, including the Bolshoi Ballet, Kirov Ballet, Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, La Scala Ballet, National Ballet of China, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Many have performed American and West Coast premieres at the Center.

Morr is excited about the Center’s 30th annual dance season, which opens September 24 with the seventh appearance of the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly Kirov Ballet).

“The Mariinsky Ballet is one of the most influential and historically rich dance companies in the world,” Morr says.

She is proud to say the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra are performing the West Cost premiere of Raymonda, a masterpiece from the Golden Age of Russian classical ballet.

Other season highlights include the Royal Swedish Ballet’s West Coast premiere of Juliet and Romeo, with maverick choreographer Mats Ek reinventing Shakespeare’s tale of the star-crossed lovers, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s American premiere of Choré, created by acclaimed Artistic Director Jean-Christophe Maillot and his contemporary take on Hollywood musicals, and the irresistible Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and its program of repertory gems.

Morr is quick to say that the success of the Center’s dance series has been from community support, especially that of Audrey Steele Burnand and the Richard Steele family.

“Their support was there from the beginning and continues to this day,” Morr says.

New dance support recently came about through the partnership of the Center with American Ballet Theatre in the form of a dance school for children, ages three through 14. According to Morr, it was through the generosity of William Gillespie that the ABT William J. Gillespie School was born right here in Orange County.

The school, which has launched and begins its first full 36-week school year in September, features acclaimed teachers schooled in the ABT National Training Curriculum. Appropriately, the school’s primary dance studio, formerly called Founders Hall, is now named the Judy Morr Theater, an honor bestowed on Morr at the Center’s prestigious Candlelight Concert last December.

With ABT bringing the West Coast premiere of its new production of The Nutcracker-the first Nutcracker in nine years at the Center–this December, I would imagine we’ll be seeing quite a few students from the new school in the 60+ children performing in the ballet.

As to the Center’s future, Morr says Center President Terry Dwyer is the guiding force. According to her, Dwyer says the heart of the Center’s vision for the future is a belief in the power of the arts to enrich lives and is a commitment to the community.

“These certainly have been at the heart of Judy’s passion for the arts and her life’s work,” Dwyer says. “And, they will continue to be as the Center–and Judy–enter their next 30 years of bringing great art and quality education programs to the community.”

Today, the Center enjoys the respect and admiration of dance companies, performing arts organizations and critics around the world, thanks in large part to this amazing woman. She laid the groundwork and defined the Center’s artistic vision and commitment to the community that has held it in good stead throughout its 30 years.

Dwyer, who has been Center president nine years, further credits Morr, saying, “I have the greatest admiration for Judy; she is a gifted programmer, has great relationships with artists world-wide and is a uniquely creative leader. The past, current and future success of the Center is due primarily to her passion for artistic excellence, ability to dream big artistically and an undeniable entrepreneurial energy in pursuit of future projects. This unique array of talents has also made it possible to conceive ambitious new plans to unlock the Center’s full potential for an even greater artistic achievement and community impact. Her presence was one of the main attractions of my coming to the Center, and I look forward to working with Judy for many more seasons to come.”

Morr, however, is quick to say, “So many people cared so deeply about the arts, and, together, they are the ones who gave life to the Center.”

And, in particular, to the late Henry Segerstrom and the entire Segerstrom family, she says, “It is not possible to imagine Orange County without the Segerstrom family, whose leadership and personal involvement made this magical world possible. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”

After all is said and done, it looks like Morr was destined to be here.

“Looking back,” she says, “I made a great decision.”

For information to purchase tickets or additional information about the ABT Gillespie School, visit SCFTA.org or call 714.556.2787.