Spectacles of Fire

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Class of ’68 | Assuming he’s done his job, Wayne Baruch C’68 is the last person you’ll be thinking about at one of the spectacular events he creates. You’ll be too busy screaming Billy Joel’s name or clapping along with a Rockette kick line to consider who brought them there and wrote their snappy introduction patter, or who figured out how to protect the Dodger Stadium grass from 20,000 temporary seats.

Since the late 1980s, Baruch has been dreaming up musical extravaganzas of all kinds—or, as his website with business partner Charles F. Gayton describes it, “events that marry cultural artistry and stimulating spectacle.”

Consider the annual “Stadium of Fire” celebration that Baruch/Gayton Entertainment Group produces in Utah for July Fourth. A local newspaper listed some of this past year’s highlights: “To the music of ‘God Bless America,’ four skydivers executed landings in a relatively tiny space on the field as the crowd held its breath … The Stadium of Fire Chorus then sang a dramatic musical interpretation of Lincoln’s famous speech. Dancers filled the field, depicting the Liberty Bell, forming a review for the presentation of the Colors, and forming the head of the Statue of Liberty.”

A video montage from the events Baruch has created displays two minutes and 16 seconds of similar razzle-dazzle. Set to The Who’s “Who Are You?” there are flashes of Stevie Wonder and Bernadette Peters and Yo-Yo Ma; of Robin Williams racing at the camera and giving it a good shake; of Jason Alexander performing a little song-and-dance number; of drummers and dancers and Liza Minnelli; of John Lithgow passionately addressing a stuffed animal; of kick lines and pyrotechnics and President Clinton catching a soccer ball. The message is clear: We know what we’re doing; we know how to make events unforgettable.

“One of my great motivations is to give people the kind of experience where you get carried away by excitement and enthusiasm,” Baruch says. Growing up in New York and going to concerts or baseball games with his family, “it was always the thrill of the crowd that blew me away more than any individual event. That energy made a deep impression on me.”

His path to event production is “a complicated question”—or at least not a linear story, he says. The Penn Glee Club “made a huge mark on me,” and “contributed to this idea that teamwork in a musical sense can teach people how to demonstrate teamwork in almost any walk of life.” From the club’s late director, Bruce Montgomery, “I learned it was possible to do something that would cause people to be teary followed by something that would be hilarious.”

(In fact, Baruch got the idea for the Stadium of Fire’s choral version of the Gettysburg Address from Monty, who had first set the speech to music back in the 1960s [“Monty in Full,” May|June 2000]. Remembering that event, Baruch hired another Glee Glub alumnus, Bob Hallock W’71, to arrange it for a mixed chorus of 360 singers. It was, says Baruch, “quite a stirring moment.”)

After studying English, music, and finance at Penn, he worked as a high-school teacher and later joined a New York advertising agency. There he helped the agency’s new TV programming offshoot broadcast David Frost’s interviews with Richard Nixon.

“I found a network in LA that was just beginning to use satellites,” he recalls. “I hired them on behalf of David Frost, but then I got so fascinated by what they were doing that I moved to LA and joined them.”

As an employee at the now-defunct Wold Company, Baruch helped distribute all sorts of events by satellite: golf tournaments, concerts, performances. By the 1990s, he’d begun producing similar affairs on a freelance basis and, after crossing paths with him several times, eventually joined forces with another event freelancer named Charles Gayton. 

While it’s hard for Baruch to choose favorites, there are of course stand-outs. In 1994, he brought the Three Tenors—opera singers Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti—to Los Angeles for a televised concert in Dodger Stadium. As a lifelong music lover, Baruch says he delighted in “bringing classical music to audiences … [and] being able to turn my back on the stage and look out at 56,000 people screaming for classical music.”

A few years later, he found himself planning the festivities for another personal cause. In celebration of Israel’s 50th anniversary, he paired the Philadelphia Orchestra with the Israel Philharmonic for a concert in Philadelphia’s CoreStates Center. He also rounded up some big names—Tony Bennett, Leonard Nimoy, Barbara Walters—and organized a live satellite feed from the Tel Aviv Museum (now known in Israel as Independence Hall), where the Israeli Declaration of Independence was signed in 1948.

“That was a fascinating project for me,” Baruch says. “I still vividly remember the unique experience of having this entire audience walk out of there feeling great about Israel. It’s something I wish could happen again.”

Since 2000, Baruch has produced the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s annual Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame Opening Concert—a celeb-studded evening that has featured prominent actors and musicians (and actor-musicians) including B.B. King, Carlos Santana, Kevin Spacey, and Charlize Theron. At last June’s event, he booked Gloria Estefan and Harry Connick Jr., planned appearances by Helen Mirren and Hilary Swank, and brought in Cirque du Soleil’s newest troupe.

Baruch says he spends a lot of his time coaxing big-name musicians from different genres to join forces. Last year, he booked Paul Simon and opera star Renée Fleming to appear at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. Baruch wanted them to sing one song together, but “they come from different worlds, and each of them is extremely cautious about not wanting to step into an area where they can’t excel,” he explains. They eventually agreed to perform “The Sound of Silence” together, accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“The biggest challenge is always convincing performers to appear in combinations that they may not have appeared in before and to get them to do material that’s unusual for them,” he says. Then again, “these are the kind of things that audiences thrill to.”

A few years ago, Baruch decided that the Academy of Music concert would feature Billy Joel and the Blue Man Group. Billy Joel was Billy Joel, but a performance by the Blue Man Group wound up stealing the show. Baruch had commissioned a piece titled “Concert for PVC and Orchestra, Opus 4: Some Assembly Required,” in which Blue Men drummed maniacally on a 16-foot instrument fashioned from PVC pipe.

“It was supposed to be funny—and it was—but it also ended up as a virtuoso percussion and orchestra tour de force,” he says. “The audience walked away not knowing what hit them, and the Philadelphia Orchestra walked away feeling the same.” 

In other words, a terrific, high-toned success.

—Molly Petrilla C’06   

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