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A Most Benevolent Generosity

Steve Bracci

The lobby of the maxwell theater is ringing with talk and laughter. It’s 10 minutes to curtain for Pirates of Penzance. A crush of ticket holders crowds the entrance to the auditorium; others peer through the plate glass walls waiting for friends. 

Hardly noticed, a little man and woman, bent with age, enter the lobby. She, staring from behind thick glasses, navigates her walker slowly, deliberately across the room. “I don’t need help!” she tells a man offering assistance. She may move slowly, but don’t mistake her for an invalid. She can take care of herself, thank you.

Her husband leads the way, gently attentive, finding a path through the theater-goers towering over him. The crowd flows around and past them as the couple inches along to aisle seats at ground level where there are no steps to negotiate. The long journey over, they sink into their seats and wait with everyone else for the music to begin.

If you’ve ever been to an Augusta music performance of the opera, symphony, ballet or Harry Jacobs Chamber Music Society, you probably saw them there. They are as faithful as his 92 years and her 88 will allow.

And if you’re a program reader, you have seen their names: Eugene and Lucille Fleischer. You have them to thank for helping pay for your tickets. As patrons of the arts in Augusta, they have underwritten the cost of many productions and kept your tickets affordable. Without people like them, the arts here would shrivel and die.

As patrons of the arts in Augusta, the Fleischers have underwritten the cost of
many productions and kept your ticket prices affordable. Without people
like them, the arts in Augusta would shrivel and die.

When Gene and Lucy talk, you know right away they’re not from here, their gritty vowels and consonants still sounding of the Bronx. They grew up there in the 1920s and ’30s. He was the son of a watchmaker. She was a smart but lonely kid living in a miserable apartment with her widowed mother. Her escape was the library.

“On Saturdays,” she remembers, “they had a room where they played the Metropolitan Opera and they gave you the libretto. And that’s how I began to love opera.”

Gene was her brother’s best friend. He played the violin. She loved opera. The two became friends.
“He took me to the first opera I ever saw, Norma. I think the seats cost a quarter,”
“Fifty cents, kid!” he replies indignantly.
“So we’re sitting in the last row of the balcony of the old Met,” she continues, “and I’m watching, and all I got out of it is they were all overweight and they all screamed and they all died.” A bit of a disappointment for the 14-year-old girl.

Gene was a good musician, playing viola with the Liederkranz Club orchestra. But back at school, basketball games were no place for the viola, so he played tuba in the band.

“It was the damndest thing,” he says. “The band sat downstairs, with a balcony over it, and guys up there would throw stuff into the tuba. I would have a hot dog, nickels and dimes, and be blasting away. You can play a tuba with a hot dog in it, but not very well.”

Lucille was very smart. At 15 she graduated from high school and started night school at Hunter College. During the day she worked a series of low-paying clerical jobs—all there was for a girl in 1940. Gene apprenticed in his father’s watchmaker’s shop at 6th Avenue and 42nd Street learning the family trade; at night he took classes at the City College of New York.
 
“In the meantime he kept coming from the Bronx to visit me and I figured it would just save us a lot of carfare if we got married. So don’t ask me what the man said, but supposedly we got married.” That was in 1942. The marriage she dismisses so playfully has held together for 72 years.

The newlyweds rented a basement apartment for $28 a month where, within a couple of months, Gene received his “Greetings” letter from Uncle Sam. As a last fling before his Army basic training, they took a bus to the Flagler Hotel in the “Borscht Belt” of the Catskills and spent a week there. 
“He was so skinny, he weighed 123 pounds. In the dining room they gave you a choice of the entrees for dinner. He ate them all. So one morning we went down and there was an extra seat there. I asked the waiter why and he said, ‘For his tapeworm.’”

The Army took Gene from New Jersey to frigid Wisconsin to the San Francisco area (“protecting the Golden Gate Bridge from the Japanese”) to Texas. Lucille followed him to each posting. Gene was named battalion artist after creating a sign for the latrine:
“We aim to please.
You aim too, please.”

His year-and-a-half in San Francisco did allow him and his young wife to attend operas and ballets. But he hated the Army, its waste of time and money and lives. He suspected that in the end he wasn’t so much needed for his skill at repairing ordnance as he was for being cannon fodder in Japan or on Okinawa. The atom bomb saved him and thousands of others from that fate.

With the war ended, Gene and Lucille wanted to finish college. They decided on the University of Miami. He graduated in 1950; she continued and earned a law degree. They had a daughter and a son. They built a house. Gene watched the builders, fascinated by their work. He got a contractor’s license. All around them, Dade County was booming. Gene jumped in, forming an investment corporation, buying land and developing it. He built condos, apartments, shopping centers, hospitals. In every structure his company built, his policy was to dedicate at least one percent of the construction cost to art in the building.

When she was about 10 or 11, daughter Phyllis asked her parents for riding lessons. Now that they could afford such things, they provided her with not only the lessons, but a horse as well. Phyllis was to become an accomplished horsewoman and Lucille turned out to have an extraordinary eye for horses. Soon she was buying, raising and showing hunter/jumpers. Over the next 50 years she raised more than 150 horses, mostly thoroughbreds. She had a photographic memory for bloodlines and show results. If you wanted to know who got first or second place for fences in, say, May 1976, you called Lucille.

Their son, Arthur, an award-winning science student in high school in Florida, went on to Emory University and then to MCG in Augusta for his M.D. Lucille had never liked Florida (“I gave her over 20 years to get used to it,” says Gene) and, liking what they saw in Augusta, the Fleischers moved here. They bought 20 acres on then-rural Alexander Drive, built a horse barn there and raised horses. Gene met Harry Jacobs, the founder and director of the Augusta Symphony, and Nate Bindler, sculptor and violist, and soon was playing viola in the Augusta Orchestra.

“It was a community symphony and it was a lot of fun,” Gene says. “Not terribly good, but a great way to keep a bunch of delinquent guys out of bars.” He played with the symphony for about 10 years. “They really improved once they were lucky enough for me to leave.”

Meanwhile, Lucille opened The Augusta Chronicle one day and saw a picture of the woman who had just become president of the Augusta Opera. Something in that face carried her back to her childhood in the Bronx. “I looked at it and I said to Gene, ‘I went to high school with this lady!’” Improbable as it seemed, that woman, Elaine Feldman, was an old schoolmate. That renewed acquaintance fired Lucille’s long-dormant passion for opera again. The Fleischers have been major supporters of the Augusta Opera ever since.

In 1984, the Fleischers sold their horse farm on Alexander Drive and moved to Lake Forest Drive. But what about the horses? A friend told them, “Get in your car, drive 17 miles and you’ll be in the center of the horse world.” They drove to Aiken and saw it was true. They bought 300 acres in Aiken’s horse country. It was perfect land for a horse show ground, so they built stalls for 200 horses, laid out courses and Lucille ran hunter-jumper horse shows there, eight a year. She was good at it. The shows were nationally recognized and drew riders from all up and down the East Coast. The Fleischers shared the profits from the shows with arts organizations in Aiken and Augusta.

Throughout these years both Lucille and Gene became students again, auditing courses at Augusta State University: history, literature, political science, education, sociology, music...they loved it all.  At last count they had taken more than 800 hours—that’s something like 266 courses, an unofficial record at ASU. They’d be taking them still if it weren’t so difficult for Lucille to get around now.

“Every year they give to the opera program. They were avid supporters of the Cullum series. To celebrate their 55th anniversary, Gene endowed the Lucille Fleischer scholarship fund for the department of music.”

“They are very generous to Augusta State,” says Helen Hendee, now retired after years as head of ASU’s Development and Alumni Relations office. “They say, ‘Whatever you need for music and the arts, just tell us.’ Every year they give to the opera program. They were avid supporters of the Cullum series. To celebrate their 55th anniversary, Gene endowed the Lucille Fleischer scholarship fund for the department of music.” Over the years they have donated something like $140,000 to ASU.

But their first love was the Augusta Opera. “I learned everything I know about opera here in Augusta,” Lucille says. Through their friendships with Elaine Feldman, artistic director Ed Bradberry and conductor Mark Flint, they learned to appreciate not only the repertoire, artistry and vocal challenges of opera, but also the behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty of staging one of these $100,000 behemoths. They travelled to New York with Bradberry once on one of his auditioning visits. They learned how to listen and what to listen for. (On this trip they also learned that their hometown could be a dangerous place: One morning Bradberry was beaten and mugged, his wallet and plane ticket stolen. The Fleischers took care of him for a couple of days and bought him a ticket home.)

They learned that a great voice does not always ensure a great performance. Years ago, as opening night of The Mikado approached, it became obvious that one of the leads was completely unprepared, reading notes off the cuff of his gown. Bradberry fired him. The Fleischers sprang into rescue mode. They drove to Orangeburg where George Darden, an accompanist for the Met, was living at the time, and brought him back to Augusta to rehearse the new lead.

 The Fleischers’ financial support was crucial to the Augusta Opera and when the company was left with substantial debt, they shouldered much of it. The company’s recent decision to cease operations saddens them.

Ah, but perhaps the fat lady hasn’t sung yet.

Having experienced the ridiculous convolutions of many an opera plot, Lucille knows that there’s always the possibility of an unexpected turn. And even at 88, she has an idea for a doozy.

“I’ve been talking to some people about forming an Augusta American Opera Company and they think it’s a good idea. It’s a company that would do just American operas. Most of the old European operas have ridiculous story lines. But American operas are mostly taken from reality, not fantasy.

“It would be a new company. It wouldn’t be associated with the old Augusta Opera. I think if we tie it in with the music department at Augusta State, it would have a good chance at success. And I’m willing to put some money in it.”
Gene smiles and nods. He likes the idea. He likes building things.
   
   

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