On a Sunday morning in July 2020, Ken Fischer woke up in Tom and Debby McMullen’s cottage on Elk Lake near Traverse City. It was the first summer of the pandemic, and many people were still hunkered down, but the University of Michigan Press had just delivered the first copies of Everybody In, Nobody Out, Fischer’s memoir of his thirty years as head of the University Musical Society.
The McMullens had encouraged him to write it, underwritten the cost, and gave UMS the money to buy 1,000 copies to sell or give away to support its performing arts series. So earlier that week, Fischer had loaded half a dozen boxes into his Lincoln Aviator. He’d distributed some around town, and then headed north.
After he’d enjoyed a bowl of Debby’s special oatmeal, he broke open a box and signed copies for the McMullens’ family and friends. Then, with time to spare before heading back to Ann Arbor, his thoughts turned to other friends in the area.
“The first call I made was to Todd Anson,” he recalls. “Todd has a special relationship with Jim Harbaugh.”
In 2015, when Harbaugh’s son James Jr. enrolled at the U-M, Anson and his wife, Terri, consulted Fischer about an appropriate gift. Learning that James loved theater, he’d suggested a pair of tickets to every theatrical event put on by UMS and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance that year. Fischer arranged the purchase, and delivered the tickets himself.
Jim Harbaugh had just started his first season as Michigan’s football coach. Fischer had just been to Washington to accept the National Medal of Arts on behalf of UMS. When James introduced them, Fischer recalls in his book, “I started off by saying, ‘Jim, the first thing I have to do is tell you what President Obama and his wife wanted me to tell you when I was at the White House two weeks ago. I relayed the president’s well wishes and the First Lady’s praise and, of course, this elicited a big broad smile. Then Jim said, ‘Now remind me … who are you and why were you at the White House?’”
That July day in 2020, Fischer’s first call found Anson at home on the Old Mission Peninsula. Fischer told him that he was included in his book and offered to bring him a copy. But “I’m not going to give it to you,” he warned. “I’m going to sell it to you. It’s $31.75—$29.92 plus tax.”
“Get on down here,” Anson replied.
They chatted on Anson’s deck overlooking the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay. When it came time to leave, Fischer recalls, Anson asked, “Oh yeah, how much was that?”
Fischer repeated the price—$31.75—and Anson went to get his checkbook. But when his host came back, he “handed me a check for $1,000!”
That day, Fischer brought copies to four more Up North supporters. He also dropped some off at the Interlochen Arts Academy, where he and his wife, Penny, met as teenage musicians in 1961.
He went on to deliver hundreds more to people who’d contributed to a UMS endowment in his name. And since that moment on Todd Anson’s deck, he’s told them, “The book is $31.75—but if you want to round it up, understand it will all go to UMS.”
So far, they’ve rounded up to the tune of $15,000—and contributions to the Ken Fischer Legacy Endowment recently topped $1 million.
The University Musical Society traces its history to Ann Arbor’s first community singing of Handel’s Messiah in 1879, yet Fischer was only its sixth leader. His predecessors, Charlie Sink and Gail Rector, both spent more than fifty years with the organization, serving for decades before ascending to the top job.
Sink built Hill Auditorium and brought in legends like Enrico Caruso and Sergei Rachmaninoff to fill its 4,000 seats. Rector doubled the number of performances while extending the warm hospitality that helped draw classical music’s biggest names to Ann Arbor.
By comparison, Fischer was an unknown quantity. Growing up in a musical family in Plymouth, he’d come to Ann Arbor for lessons and concerts, and Penny had helped pay his grad school tuition by working as Rector’s assistant. By the time his predecessor retired, though, they’d been living for many years in Washington D.C. Fischer was presenting concerts there, but made his living in higher education and running corporate conferences.
The head of the search committee told the Observer that they wanted someone who would “be sure that we present a series of absolutely topflight stuff.” But UMS had taken heavy losses during the first Ann Arbor Summer Festivals, forcing it to borrow from the university for the first time, and was still running a deficit—so they also needed someone who would “be ingenious and dedicated about helping to raise the money needed for that kind of program.”
The gregarious Fischer checked both boxes. “This guy is like the P.T. Barnum of UMS!” says music professor Mike Gould. He’s been a friend and admirer since 1998, when Fischer showed up at a meeting to promote his programs and offer new faculty free tickets.
“Who is this guy?” Gould recalls thinking. “He’s an amazing public speaker. And he’s so affable.”
“Ken Fischer is the best schmoozer you’ll ever meet,” says another longtime friend, Marvin Parnes, retired managing director of the Institute for Social Research. “He’s like the Schmoozer General!”
By Fischer’s account, he’s always been that way. In junior high, “I would get up at four o’clock in the morning to deliver the Detroit Free Press. I didn’t throw the papers on the porch. I walked up and put it between the screen door and the front door, to provide excellent service. Of course that had its rewards at Christmastime and when I came around to collect.
“I loved collecting, because it meant I’d be invited into somebody’s house, and they might give me some hot cocoa or something. I was never in a hurry on those days when I had a chance to see my customers—that’s when you receive, ‘Kenny, thank you so much for putting the paper inside my screen door. Here’s a buck. Thank you.’”
When Fischer was hired at UMS, the university’s president at the time, Harold Shapiro, told him that it would take five years to turn around the finances. That proved accurate—but Fischer didn’t do it alone. While his predecessors had made major decisions themselves, he shared responsibility with a team of experts in programming, fundraising, and finance. “He just has a lovely manner,” says Parnes. “He can lead. He’s not autocratic—he’s collaborative.”
He also initiated multi-day “residencies” that connected UMS performers to the rest of the university and the larger community. One last fall brought Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for an entire week. More than 200 singers and players performed Marsalis’s jazz opera All Rise at Hill—but there were also master classes at Detroit schools, a Penny Stamps talk at the Michigan Theater, and a halftime performance with the Michigan Marching Band.
Fischer presented Marsalis many times at UMS, but the residency was the work of Fischer’s successor, Matthew VanBesien. VanBesien previously ran the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, so he had his own relationship with Marsalis. But he credits Fischer with opening the door to a much wider range of performing arts.
“UMS was an almost exclusively western classical music presenter when Ken started,” VanBesien says. “I think the vibrancy of the full range of programming that developed during Ken’s tenure is amazing. And I think we’re trying to build further on that now, which is to think: How can that spectrum be even bigger? How can it be broader? How can it be more inclusive? And what constitutes programming today?
“In my view, it’s Trevor Noah and it’s the Berlin Philharmonic on the Hill Auditorium stage. But it’s also a wonderful ‘You Can Dance’ community dance workshop in downtown Ypsilanti.”
VanBesien, of course, has a signed copy of Everybody In, Nobody Out. “Frankly, even if he hadn’t wanted to [write] it, those of us around him would have pushed him to do it,” he says.
None more than the McMullens. When Fischer was getting ready to retire, he visited major donors to make sure their support would continue. The McMullens, who a few years earlier had sold their family business in what the Ann Arbor News called the largest private commercial property transaction in the city’s history, made a five-year commitment. That included paying for a professional cowriter, Robin Lea Pyle, as well as editing and marketing.
“Tom also said, ‘You remember that great experience I had with Mikhail Baryshnikov … we played golf together,’” Fischer recalls. “If that story finds its way in there, I’m not going to be disappointed.” It’s there, on page 129.
In 2004, Fischer writes, the legendary dancer/actor/choreographer was in town “for a six-performance run of Rezo Gabriadze’s Forbidden Christmas, or The Doctor and the Patient.” Of course, Fischer didn’t just set up a golf date between Baryshnikov and some of UMS’s best corporate sponsors before making sure he could actually play golf. First, he arranged a round with UMS staff members at the Ann Arbor Country Club. Baryshnikov shot an 88.
So the next day, “I invited local real estate developer Tom McMullen to play golf with Misha (he wanted them to call him Misha),” Fischer writes. “Tom at first thought it was a joke.” The late restaurateur Dennis Serras joined them. Afterward, “Dennis and I stopped by the office of the Main Street Association and surprised his wife, Ellie. She screamed when she saw Baryshnikov at the door.”
Besides her cameo in the book, Ellie Serras helped get it written. When he moved out of the UMS president’s office in Burton Tower, Fischer was given an office in the sociology department—but two years later, the sociologists needed it back.
“I still needed a place to work on the book,” Fischer recalls. Then he got a call from Mike Gould. Ellie Serras had texted him about Fischer’s dilemma, and Gould invited him to share the world performance studies office in East Quad.
Fischer was thrilled. “Fifty years ago I was doing research on this brand-new idea called the Residential College,” he says. “And that’s where I finished the book.”
“And this is an important point, which I think is hilarious,” adds Gould. “Seventeen boxes show up!” Gould laughs. “I look at our program specialist [who shared the space], and I’m like, ‘Oh man, he’s really moving in!’”
He filled the bookshelves with his books “and put his pens and papers on the desk,” Gould recalls. “And he’s still there!
“I love it. I’m happy to share my space with him, because he’s a treasure, and also he is an amazing person who helps everybody who’s around him. I had an opportunity to do the same thing.”
Fischer’s endowment is intended to support one UMS performance every year. He says the original plan to recognize its donors was for him to sign book plates that UMS staff would place in the books and distribute.
“I said, ‘Can I see the size of the book plate?’” he recalls. “It was bigger than a postage stamp, but not much. ‘This is unacceptable!’ I said. ‘These are my friends!’” He insisted on signing the books themselves—and delivering as many of them as possible in person.
“It didn’t surprise me at all,” VanBesien says. “Not just sharing the book with people, but encouraging them to think about their own donations and donating as part of purchasing a book.”
The pandemic “provided a real obstacle, or a set of obstacles, for the launch of this book,” VanBesien recalls. “I really felt for Ken in this situation. But as always, Ken is unbelievably resilient and creative and found a way to still connect with people.”
Now, with most of the books signed and delivered, the Fischers are thinking about their next chapter. They recently went to San Francisco for an extended stay near their son, Matt, his wife Renee, and their grandchildren, Alex and Reid.
They went to “all the basketball games [and] school activities, and we’re really getting to know these kids much better,” Fischer says. While they aren’t quite ready to make a decision about a move, “We know we want to be more engaged in our grandchildren’s lives.”
Their grandkids probably won’t have paper routes, or meet their spouses at Interlochen. But they will have the benefit of hanging out with their grandparents and hearing their stories. And of course they’ll have their grandfather’s book.