THE POWERHOUSES: A series by David Lyman
This is another in our occasional series of stories about energetic and influential women – particularly those from the second half of the 20th Century – who profoundly enriched the cultural lives of Greater Cincinnati.
The woman who changed the course of Cincinnati Ballet by backing a beloved classic
If you’ve attended Cincinnati Ballet ‘s “Nutcracker” in the last few years, you’ve seen it. There’s no big announcement or flashy sign – just a single line in the program. It’s in the scene-by-scene list of the ballet’s various settings. The ballet opens, we’re told, in “Blanche’s Kitchen.”
That may not seem like a big deal. But it reflects one of the organization’s most important relationships since the company’s founding in 1963.
“Blanche” is the late Blanche Frisch Maier, who died in 2009. She was the daughter of Frisch’s Big Boy founder Dave Frisch. She also was one of the earliest Cincinnati Ballet board members and would go on to become president during some of the ballet’s most tumultuous years in the 1990s.
She wasn’t a dancer. Indeed, she knew almost nothing about ballet when she joined the Women’s Committee of what was then the Cincinnati Civic Ballet. She was too busy raising eight children and assisting a husband who was an executive of a rapidly growing business.
But when a friend took her to see an early performance of the ballet company, she was entranced.
“She just thought it was so beautiful,” said Maier’s eldest daughter, Karen. “So she got involved. That’s how she was. And once she got to know the people – the dancers, the designers, the costume people – she was hooked.”
The relationship would change the course of Cincinnati Ballet.
Blanche’s family was quite poor. Her father, Dave Frisch, would go on to build the Frisch’s Big Boy empire. However, when Blanche was born in 1927, they lived in Bond Hill and he worked alongside his father and brothers in a succession of small Cincinnati restaurants, most notably Frisch’s Stag Lunch in Norwood.
Like her father, she brought an appreciation for hard work, common sense and street smarts to everything she did. Blanche was always ambitious and involved.
When she was a junior at Withrow High School, she chaired the volunteer committee selling war bonds and stamps. It wasn’t enough to sit on the sidelines. She had to be in the thick of the action.
A couple of decades later, after her friend Missy Greiwe recruited her as a volunteer for Little Sisters of the Poor’s Charity, Blanche was assigned to sell raffle tickets.
“She knew where the best customers would be,” recalls Karen Maier. “At church.” So every Sunday, she would pack the kids in the car and set up a ticket-selling operation in front of a different Catholic church.
She was so successful that, by the end of the 1960s, she and her sister were asked to chair the Charity Ball. Blanche and her sister Shirley, who were raised Jewish, were believed to be the first non-Catholics to chair the prestigious event.
Blanche would be involved with other organizations over the years: the Greater Cincinnati Charity Horse Show, the Springer School, Cincinnati Country Day School and Cincinnati Opera.
“But Cincinnati Ballet was her love,” says Karen.
In 1973, family friend and ballet board member John Magro approached Blanche’s husband Jack – by then Frisch’s president and CEO – about the company becoming the lead donor for a full-length production of “Nutcracker.”
Jack Maier didn’t participate much in the arts. As the son of a blue-collar factory employee who moved the family regularly, he simply hadn’t been exposed to them. Hard work was his favorite art form. Indeed, Jack and Blanche were married on a Monday because the restaurants were closed that day.
But Magro convinced him of the marketing value of a sponsorship. A family ballet seemed a perfect fit for Frisch’s clientele.
That was good enough for Jack. Yes, it was nice that Blanche had grown to love the ballet. But sentiment didn’t outweigh business.
Growing the business
Dave Frisch opened Frisch’s Mainliner in Fairfax in 1939 – the area’s first year-round drive-in. But the company’s meteoric growth began a decade later, after Frisch became the regional licensee of the Big Boy name.
By 1961, there were more than 150 Frisch’s Big Boy restaurants. Any investment, in the arts or otherwise, would have to be one that would grow the company.
“This is advertising,” Karen Maier said years later, reflecting on underwriting the ballet. “We’re just trying to sell hamburgers. And hot fudge cake. And pumpkin pie. We were lucky enough to find a way to do it by sponsoring something we love. I don’t think my mom and dad knew it would last this long. But as long as it continues to give Frisch’s mileage and enhance our relationship with the community, I expect we’ll continue
to do it.”
As it turned out, that partnership would last the rest of Blanche Maier’s life – and beyond.
Early on during her involvement with Cincinnati Ballet, Blanche’s hands-on approach endeared her to then-artistic director David McLain. The ballet was a more frail institution in the 1970s than it is today – facing collapse on several occasions.
In February 1976, bitter weather forced the ballet to cancel its performances of “Swan Lake.” By the end of the season, they were on the edge of bankruptcy.
That’s when McLain turned to Blanche for help. He didn’t want her to write a big check. Frisch’s had already done that underwriting the premiere of “The Nutcracker.” Nor did he ask her to seek out other major donors. He knew that she disliked asking for money. But Blanche adored the ballet, and she was willing to tell anyone who would listen to her.
McLain’s request was simple, but demanding. He wanted her to sell $175,000 worth of subscriptions – triple the normal amount – during the summer of 1977. She was, according to a story in The Cincinnati Enquirer, “unfazed” by the challenge, which she called “a fight for survival.”
She turned into a frontline battalion commander, garnering forces together, including the dancers themselves, pushing them hard to promote the ballet and sell subscriptions. She put together an intensive campaign that found scores of people selling by phone, in meetings and just about anywhere else they would find potential customers. They developed “dance-and-sell” programs that featured mini-performances and opportunities to buy and took them to the masses at local malls.
A goldmine in tchotchkes
It was common to find Blanche at a sewing machine in the wardrobe department. Or hosting massive parties at her home so the company’s newest dancers and board members could meet one another.
There was the Ballet Boutique, too. In 1978, Music Hall set aside a small space in the lobby so the groups that performed there could sell arts-related tchotchkes to their audiences. Blanche, a born merchant, carried the concept to the extreme.
“My mother turned it into its own business for the ballet,” said Craig Maier, the oldest of Blanche’s children. “She went to the wholesale commercial markets in Atlanta twice a year to buy things.”
It wasn’t uncommon to see a semi navigating the driveway of their Indian Hill home, delivering crates filled with nutcrackers and glass slipper tree ornaments.
“It was a huge operation,” said Larry Kellar, who served on the ballet board alongside Blanche for many years. “In the early days, it was an important part of us making our budget. It’s still a significant piece of it now.”
The ballet may have been her volunteer work. But Blanche approached it with the same discipline she did everything else in her life.
“Blanche was tough when she needed to be,” said longtime friend Bev Barden. “She could stand up to anybody. But she was never a bully. She treated everyone equally.”
That became essential as the ballet’s board president. The company went through four artistic directors in a decade. One abandoned the company on short notice, leaving behind a deficit of more than $500,000. The next died in an auto accident after less than 18 months on the job. The third joined Cincinnati Ballet’s teaching staff just eight days before he was named interim artistic director. The fourth left under a cloud of sexual harassment accusations.
“Blanche remained a dependable supporter of the company through all of that,” said Kellar. “She was there in the hard times, even as we lost people and didn’t have a dependable support team. Blanche was always there.”
Not coincidentally, so was Frisch’s and its support for “Nutcracker.”
Year in and year out, “Nutcracker” has been the reliable cash cow that bankrolled the rest of the ballet season. And year in and year out, Frisch’s has been there, too, supporting the existing production even as it set aside money for the next production.
All about making it work
In 1997, Blanche championed a young and relatively unproven candidate as the company’s artistic director – Victoria Morgan, the company’s first woman in that role.
“I think my mother thought of her as another daughter,” said Karen Maier. “I think she also recognized someone who was smart. She was artistic and articulate, and she worked very, very hard to keep the company on an even financial keel, which was so important to my mother. I think my mother was very proud of Victoria.”
The feeling was mutual.
“Blanche was so important to me when I first got to Cincinnati,” said Morgan, who is still the company’s artistic director. “She was matter-of-fact and down to earth. But what was most important is that she was respectful, even if you disagreed. She wanted the company to work and to survive. It was never about her or about her ego. It was always about how do we make it work and then, how do we make it work the best way we can? I thank God she was so involved when I came to Cincinnati. She and her whole family made it work for me here.”
One last thought: What about the future? What does it hold for Blanche’s “Nutcracker,” the one Cincinnati Ballet now calls “The Nutcracker Presented by Frisch’s Big Boy”? After all, the Maier family no longer owns the restaurant chain. There is no longer the same familial link.
“Nutcracker” will survive, to be sure. A new production is likely in the next four or five years. At the moment, though, the ballet has its hands full raising money for a new home on Gilbert Avenue, across the street from Eden Park.
Once that’s done, it will turn its attention to raising money for a new “Nutcracker.”
In the meantime, Morgan says, Frisch’s has committed to at least two more years.
Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.