Rock and Roll and Beyond

Georgia Dentel, the woman who put Grinnell College on the musical map
Michele Regenold ’89

At 89, Georgia Dentel’s recall for conversations with people 50 years ago is clear and eloquent, much like her voice. From her easy chair at the Mayflower Community Health Center in Grinnell, she tells stories about performers and agents and concert promoters. The longer she talks, the stronger her voice becomes.

In 1960 when President Howard Bowen interviewed Dentel for the new position of activities counselor, he said, “I need activities. I need things happening for the students to do. I need to establish some sort of weekend activity, but I don’t know what that should be.”

“He didn’t know what kind of things he wanted,” Dentel says. She arrived on campus that fall not completely certain what her duties were. So she met with various students and formed a committee to oversee new ideas.

One of the early speakers was a local insurance man who talked about marriage. He got the best response, Dentel says.

“It emerged gradually that the only thing students wanted were concerts,” she says. “They wanted rock and roll.” There were a couple of bands in Iowa, but Dentel hated to bring them because they weren’t very good, she says.

“It occurred to me that the best bands of the country were at Fillmore East and Fillmore West,” Dentel says of the music venues in New York City and San Francisco, respectively. So she called Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter and artist manager who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. “I asked him if he had any bands that would make a trip to the Midwest for the Grinnell College homecoming. For the amount of money we could offer — it was very small — I can’t believe I had the nerve to ask him.

“He said, ‘No, I really don’t.’ But we talked a little while. I told him I wanted only the best. I didn’t want a lot of trashy stuff.

“He said, ‘I don’t have anybody right now, but there’s a band I’m thinking of bringing into the Fillmore. They’re playing in a club.’”

Even though Graham didn’t say so explicitly, Dentel could tell that the band wasn’t making much money, so the College could probably afford them.

“Just as we were about to hang up,” Dentel says, “I said, ‘Oh, by the way, what’s their name?’

Jefferson Airplane played for Grinnell’s homecoming dance, Oct. 22, 1966.

The early days

“Music was in my life always,” Dentel says. She played clarinet in the concert band and marching band at the University of Iowa, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English and history in 1948.

When she arrived at Grinnell in 1960, “music was largely out of a jukebox,” Dentel says. The jukebox was in the Student Union, a former Army barracks in about the same location as the Forum, which was then in the planning stages.

The Student Union was a “rickety wooden building,” says John Gleysteen ’63, “but to us a very lively place.” As chairman of the Student Union his junior year and social coordinator his senior year, Gleysteen worked closely with Dentel.

“She was very helpful to me in making suggestions of who to bring for what time,” Gleysteen says. “She obviously knew her field. We all had our ideas as to what we wanted to do. She didn’t make an effort to intercede and do things her way instead of our way. She was truly there to facilitate.”

Jack Spence ’64, concerts chair in 1963–64, agrees. “Georgia asked for suggestions and offered suggestions,” he says. “She played an entrepreneurial role and a mediator role. Her goal, I think, was having events spread throughout the year instead of one big concert. I can remember her sort of cajoling us. She’d say, ‘If we have such and such a group, we can afford this, but it means we’ll have fewer groups.’”

At that time, most colleges were giving one big dance per semester. For the 1963 Christmas Formal at Grinnell, Count Basie played, and for the 1964 Spring Formal, Louis Armstrong played.

Learning on the job

Dentel says, “There were some students who had wonderful record collections. Students knew more about the artists than I did, but I knew how to get in touch with them.”

Figuring out how to book artists was the main thing she had to learn. “When I was learning about this, it was really self-taught,” she says. “I became acquainted with a couple of bands playing in Cedar Rapids. This fellow turned out to be a pretty good source of people in Chicago, and it kind of gradually developed.”

When it came to negotiating about money, Dentel says, “I just had to work with what I had. Some of these bands became very, very expensive as time went on, but at first they were up against it as far as money was concerned.”

Gary Giddins ’70, concerts chair in 1967–68 and social coordinator for 1968–69, says, “What I discovered was any band that tours, they hate a night without a gig. Maybe they’re doing Chicago and St. Louis. We’d get bands for a decent price — Duke Ellington’s 15-piece band for $4,000, whereas a three-piece rock band was $12,000.

“Georgia really understood that jazz groups were getting a fraction that rock groups were getting and that my obligation was to provide something every month,” Giddins says. “Since I loved jazz, she made it very clear to me that I could probably do something every month — B.B. King, the Carter family, Doc Watson. Whereas if you have a rock band, you squander your whole thing on one night.

“Georgia knew every agent, and if she didn’t, she never questioned me — my taste or me. She gave me a lot of leeway that way. And then she’d take over as soon as I gave her the telephone number. She’d make the deal.”

Even when she was able to pull off something fabulous — like a Pete Seeger concert — she sometimes got pushback. “Some faculty didn’t like that Pete Seeger was on a weeknight,” she says. She’d tried to get Seeger “many, many times in the past. He was almost unreachable.” Darby Gym was packed that Tuesday, Oct. 21, 1969. Dentel says, “If the students wanted something, they could usually get it. Pressure on the administration would cause them to give in. I don’t think [students] really understood how much influence they had.”

Professional reputation

As a result of Dentel’s growing reputation among agents, they eventually started calling her. She recalls an agent calling to see if she was planning to bring Bruce Springsteen to campus.

“He’d mentioned him to me before,” Dentel says, “but I didn’t know who Springsteen was. I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ This was May that he called. He said, ‘If you want him, you should take him now because by fall he’s going to be out of your reach.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never booked two years out.’ He talked me into it.”

Brian Mann ’76 was social coordinator when Springsteen played at Grinnell on Sept. 20, 1975, a month after his album Born to Run was released. Springsteen was on the October covers of Time and Newsweek.

Mann says Springsteen’s people “did everything in their power to get out of the concert because they were playing these big venues then. So they started making all these demands. They started saying, ‘Well, the little gym you have us playing in can’t handle our light show.’ So Georgia worked it out to drain the power from the science building to support it. ‘We’re going to need a big spread of fruit.’ Done. ‘We’re going to need security.’ Done. So I’m sure the cost of the concert doubled. It was a major event. Georgia was amazing in navigating that. I’m told that the Springsteen people joked for years about the private party they played in Grinnell,” Mann says.

Job in jeopardy

In 1976, Dentel was at the top of her game. Even so, her position and four others — all but one held by women — were eliminated during an administrative reorganization instituted by President A. Richard Turner. The changes were to take effect the next fiscal year.

Waldo Walker, professor emeritus of biology, was Turner’s executive vice president then. “When Turner came to campus as a newly-appointed president,” Walker says, “he mentioned to me early on that he believed that the administration was too large, especially in regard to middle-administration positions, considering the financial stress which the budget was experiencing at that time.

“Georgia was having no problems,” Walker adds, “and as far as I could see she was doing a good job getting really big-name entertainers to come to Grinnell College. Her track record there was excellent.”

During an open forum in the South Lounge of the Forum Sept. 22, 1976, Turner told several hundred students that he would not reconsider his decision about eliminating Dentel’s position.

Dozens of students and alumni wrote Turner letters describing Dentel’s expertise and significant impact on campus. Turner sent a standard letter back, writing in part, “We are well aware of the quality of her work in the area of social programming and booking events for college performances. Unfortunately, the College is in a posture of budget reduction that forces us to reduce the number of middle level administration by three positions.”

Faculty members were also concerned. Joseph Wall ’41, professor of history, was on leave in 1976–77 and wrote to Turner: “Part of the difficulty for the faculty and students may lie in the fact that this plan was put into operation during the summer.” Students raised this point too.

Wall also addressed another sensitive issue — possible sexism. “The questions of principle that seem to be raised by this reorganization are centered around the issue of women administrative and staff personnel in very visible roles,” Wall wrote. “At a time when the faculty is being urged nationally and locally, legally and ethically, to make an all-out effort to bring highly qualified women to the teaching staff, the abrupt lopping off of three administrative and staff women naturally raises serious questions among the faculty and students.”

Turner replied, “I think the question, which I realize is not yours personally, as to whether the whole thing was rigged to get rid of women, is despicable.” For Turner, the move was about saving money. In his postscript to Wall, Turner wrote, “As you all too well know, there has not been any serious attempt to tighten up the administration in 15 years. The tendency has been to move people around and not face the issue.”

The uproar lasted until fall break, by which time Turner changed his mind. Dentel was offered a half-time position, which she eventually accepted.

D. A. Smith, professor emeritus of history and a great friend of Dentel’s, says, “They put her on half time, but she found it impossible to reduce her work hours accordingly.”

Dentel’s job was threatened again in 1984 — and again the issue was budgetary and again students protested vigorously. Smith believes a handful of trustees intervened on her behalf. Dentel doesn’t talk about these difficulties, however.

The voice on the phone

Dentel did not have a typical 8-to-5 job — even when it was full-time. She worked year-round because, she says, “I had to be available to bookers and managers.” She often worked late into the evening, making calls to booking agents to line up performers for concerts, much of which she did from home.

After the early 1970s, the students who worked closely with Dentel knew her only on the phone.

“She was sort of mysterious,” says Pat Irwin ’77, concerts co-chair 1976–77. He spoke with her on the phone frequently. “She was the expert. She knew the world, the business. She was the adult in the room.”

Dan Klatz ’84 recalls her great voice. “She was animated, engaging, thoughtful on the phone,” he says. “She clearly wanted to connect with people in meaningful ways.”

“She was always fun to talk to,” says Leif Larsen ’88, concerts chair during his senior year. “She had a good sense of humor. She was always interested in what was happening on campus.”

Smith says, “Probably Georgia’s greatest enjoyment in the whole job was working with students who found her a sympathetic person.” Dentel retired in 2001.

Giddins, who became a major jazz critic, says, “I got to talk with Duke Ellington and meet Louis Armstrong. So I got to learn about [jazz] from the musicians themselves.”

Irwin, who became a professional musician, says, “I think of her as one of the more impactful people in my experience at school. As important as it might have been to write a paper or research a project, for me, meeting musicians, making dates work, working with her was unforgettable.”

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