A Monthly Series of Donor and Patron Profiles
Longtime Philadelphia Orchestra subscriber Dr. Louis Keeler had recently switched his series from Thursday evenings to Friday afternoons and was enjoying a matinee performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 (“It was a great performance that day,” he remembers) when he observed something troubling: He didn’t see any young people in the audience.
“As I sat there I noticed all the empty seats up in the balcony,” says Keeler. “And I noticed that the preponderance of the crowd was all white hair!” He had been reading about the Orchestra’s financial troubles in the newspaper, and thought that bringing in a younger audience seemed an obvious piece of the solution. It also happened to be time for him to make his annual donation to his beloved alma mater, West Catholic High School in West Philadelphia. That’s when he got the idea to combine the two passions. He could help the Orchestra by buying tickets and giving them to students. “These young people come from homes of very, very modest means,” says Keeler.
After consulting with West Catholic, Keeler and his wife, Morrie, decided to purchase 25 subscriptions to the Friday matinees. The tickets will go to deserving students, chosen by the school. “To me it’s tremendously satisfying because I feel 25 students at least will experience something that there is no chance they could have ever experienced without this,” says Keeler. “And maybe five of them will take an interest in classical music and become subscribers to The Philadelphia Orchestra.”
As an added bonus, Dr. and Mrs. Keeler will be attending the same concert as the kids. “That will be an extra treat for us,” says Keeler, adding, “The beauty of The Philadelphia Orchestra is just unparalleled.”
Keeler remembers first hearing about The Philadelphia Orchestra back in 1937, when he was just five years old. His grandmother had season tickets and his mother was a concert pianist. His personal connection to the art, however, came 20 years later, when he was a medical student studying obstetrics at Pennsylvania Hospital. After a night of delivering babies, he was trying to catch up on some sleep, but a piece of classical music interrupted. “The fellow in the room next to me was playing Der Rosenkavalier when I was trying to take a nap,” he recalls. “And I thought, ‘My God, that’s beautiful.’”
An interest in opera came next, with season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, followed by a 30-year subscription to The Philadelphia Orchestra, starting with performances at the Academy of Music. “Music has been a big part of my life,” says Keeler, although he stresses he has no training in music. “His mother could not catch him or his brother long enough to have them take piano lessons!” says his wife, adding, “I’m just happy I married him and he introduced me to all this.
The Keelers live in Cherry Hill, where they raised five children (Keeler recalls taking his daughter to see Van Cliburn when he performed in Philadelphia), but Dr. Keeler grew up in Lansdowne, PA. He has fond memories of thumbing a ride to school in West Philadelphia every day, and sitting in classrooms overflowing with no less than 70 students. He credits his drama teacher at West Catholic, Margaret Mary Kearney, with endowing him with oratorical skills that have served him all his life.
He says he wasn’t sure what kind of reception he’d get when he approached West Catholic, but was pleased to learn the school had a thriving music program. Add in the fact that the Kimmel Center is easily accessible by bus from the school’s location at 45th and Chestnut, and the whole proposal seemed a winning proposition. “It was very easy, logistically, to make it happen,” he says.
Keeler’s own classmates (class of 1950) still meet several times a year. (At the last meeting, he says, 30 guys showed up.) Keeler’s hope is that rival schools—like Roman, Hallahan, and Neumann and Maria Goretti—take note of what’s happening. If the donation giving tickets to West Catholic students works out well this year, other alumni associations might be inspired to consider similar efforts and help introduce young people to The Philadelphia Orchestra.
“They have exposure to all this crazy music, and you never even hear them discuss classical music. And it’s only because they haven’t been exposed to it,” Keeler says. “Maybe this article,” he adds, “… one of them will pick it up and say, hmm, that would be a good idea.”