Theaters tend to get named after performers, cities, donors, spouses of donors, children of donors and–every once in a while–the parents of donors. It's a fact that Segerstrom Center for the Arts executive vice president Judy Morr has learned in her 30 years at the complex, during which she's seen the center grow from nothing into the 14-acre campus it is today, with the names of OC's richest benefactors on everything from walls to marquees.
So imagine her surprise in December when the Segerstrom Center's board of directors announced it was changing the name of Founders Hall to the Judy Morr Theater. "I was in awe of the kindness and generosity of the people who made it happen," Morr says, her joy still palpable months later. "And it speaks to why I've been here so long."
Staying for four decades in one place is an accomplishment for Morr, respected in OC culture circles for helping to make the Segerstrom Center into one of the most innovative yet populist arts centers in the country. Raised on Chicago's South Side, Morr got her graduate degree in urban education at Simmons College in Boston, planning to become a teacher.
But volunteering at a local theater, doing everything from bookkeeping to drawing up contracts, inspired Morr to "choose where my heart led me." She ended up working at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., for 16 years, eventually becoming general manager of its theaters. In 1984, Morr was recruited to be inaugural general manager of the as-yet-unopened Orange County Center for the Performing Arts.
"I liked taking a jump and seeing where you would land," she says.
Under Morr, the center expanded dramatically over the years: There are now four performance venues, plus the Art Plaza, all hosting the classical arts along with mainstream musicals, edgy comedians and the Off Center Festival, which has attracted younger, more diverse crowds. She has placed a particular emphasis on having events in the plaza, where a Richard Serra statue serves as a dramatic reminder of art for the masses. "An arts center should be for all the people," she says. "It should have appeal and be intriguing."
Toward that, Morr is especially proud of hosting hundreds of thousands of elementary and high school students each year to tour the facilities. "I just count the buses," she says with a laugh.
Part of Morr's staying power is not just great managerial skills–she begins each morning by reading newspapers, then reviews the previous night's box-office numbers before checking in with everyone from the CFO to the receptionist–but also researching what acts and ensembles will hit it big, a process that finds her usually booking events two years in advance. "I always have to leave the present to work in the future," she says. But that has paid off with a bevy of West Coast premieres for the Segerstrom over the decades. And while it's part of Morr's job to attract the best acts possible, there's also an ulterior motive behind her hustle.
"I still think of myself as a gypsy, but I'm anything but a gypsy," Morr admits with a chuckle. "Theater people are born knowing that they may not be in the same place month after month to make their dreams happen, but I have. I just bring it all here."