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He Knows the Score

The Petrillo name will not appear on the city's fancy new bandshell. That's OK with former CSO percussionist and labor activist Sam Denov.

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James C. Petrillo's moniker has been on the Grant Park bandshell since 1976, when Mayor Richard J. Daley put it there, and the Petrillo family has been lobbying to get it transferred to the Frank Gehry confection that's slated to go up in Millennium Park. Two years ago Petrillo's granddaughter Donna De Rosa told the Reader her grandfather had earned the honor as a Park District commissioner, the originator of the Grant Park concerts, and one of the nation's most prominent labor leaders. But word is the new bandshell will probably be named after a donor. If city officials are looking for a reason to say no to De Rosa, they might pick up a copy of Symphonic Paradox: The Misadventures of a Wayward Musician, a slender memoir recently published by former Chicago Symphony Orchestra percussionist Sam Denov. The heart of Denov's story of his 31 years with the CSO is the tale of how he and other musicians struggled to free themselves from the choke hold of the longtime union boss. "You wouldn't name a park after Al Capone, would you?" says Denov. "So why name a bandshell after Petrillo?"

Denov is a Chicago native. Like a fair number of his CSO contemporaries, he graduated from Lane Tech's (long gone) four-year music program. He served in the navy during World War II and spent five years playing with the San Antonio and Pittsburgh symphonies before Chicago recruited him in 1954. The CSO music director was Fritz Reiner, and Petrillo was president of both the Chicago Federation of Musicians Local 10 and its parent organization, the American Federation of Musicians. In short order, Denov learned his dream job had a nasty underside. Reiner was a tyrant with an uncanny ear; he hired, fired, and terrorized at random, and gave raises, such as they were, mostly to his cronies. As for the union: "The entire contract," Denov writes, "consisted of one typewritten page. We had nothing whatever to do with the contract's negotiation, nor did we have the right to ratify whatever it was that the union had negotiated on our behalf." To make matters worse, Petrillo was cozy with the chairman of the orchestra's board of trustees, Dr. Eric Oldberg. "We all knew...that Oldberg actually dictated all the terms and conditions of our contract," Denov says. The union held only one meeting a year, and no name but Petrillo's appeared on its ballot for president. With a starting salary of $145 a week for 28 weeks each year, Denov took an off-season job as a car hiker for an auto dealer while his colleagues peddled pots and pans or Fuller brushes. Trapped between Reiner and Petrillo, they felt as powerless as indentured servants.

In 1959 Reiner (who was suffering from congestive heart failure but wouldn't tell anyone) backed out of the orchestra's long-planned first trip to Europe. The musicians, pining for international recognition, were crushed. They made an effigy of him, tossed it to the floor of their dressing room, and trampled it. The incident made its way into Time magazine, and CSO management called a postrehearsal meeting to demand an apology on Reiner's behalf. It was a turning point for Denov, who to his own amazement heard himself respond, "If anyone is going to apologize here, it's going to be Dr. Reiner to us!" That moment, Denov writes, "started a chain of events that had a life of its own." CSO players marched to union headquarters (where Petrillo's office sat behind bulletproof windows and a multilocked steel door) to make their own demand for a committee of musicians that would be a liaison to management and the union. Aware that Congress was considering a bill of rights for union members, Petrillo acquiesced, and Denov was one of nine players elected to the committee. But when the committee (advised by future congressman Abner Mikva) began to push for musicians' rights, including the right to ratify contracts, Oldberg held a secret meeting with Petrillo. A few months later, the musicians learned that Oldberg had plotted with Petrillo to get rid of the most vocal activists, co-opting the newly elected head of the members' committee, cellist Harry Sturm, to finger the offenders. In the spring of 1960, Denov and four other activists got letters announcing that their contracts with the orchestra would not be renewed. With no help coming from the union or (an apparently clueless) Reiner, orchestra members began to plan an unfair-labor-practices strike in protest, and Oldberg, afraid of attracting the attention of the NLRB, backed down. Five months after they had been sent, the firing notices were rescinded just as they had come--by mail, without explanation.

Now the players were beginning to feel their muscle, and Petrillo--who had retired from his national post after the AFM was sued by members in Los Angeles over a union-controlled trust fund--seemed more vulnerable. At the next annual meeting of Local 10, CSO players teamed up with dance-band freelancers to derail a pension Petrillo was attempting to set up for himself. (The money was diverted to a fund to pay retired musicians for performing free concerts.) And when the next election was held, in 1962, they defied a 40-year tradition, mounted their own slate, and voted Petrillo and his candidates out of office. The national union retaliated against the musicians a few months later by placing Local 10 in a trusteeship and making Petrillo chairman of AFM's new civil rights department--in spite of the fact, says Denov, that Petrillo had for years opposed the merger of all-white Local 10 with its black counterpart, Local 208. But the tenor of things had changed: the musicians now had the power to ratify their contracts, and other reforms had been set in motion. Denov wrote the rules for the new job of CSO union steward and was the first to serve in that post.

In 1969 Georg Solti took over as music director, unaware that he was the orchestra's third choice, and in '71 the CSO finally made its first, glorious tour of Europe. Still, it seemed to Denov that union-management relations were not what they should be. In 1985, discouraged by what he saw as signs that they were still in bed together, he retired and became a freelance labor relations consultant, doing occasional guest performances with other orchestras. Ten years ago he represented a pair of musicians in a case against the Los Angeles local. After all these years, after everything else, he suspects that that case landed him on a blacklist. "I have not been [asked] to perform a single professional engagement since."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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