Charley Stark and some friends were sitting around the Candle Club one night in late 2007 when the idea took form. Legendary cabaret singer Marilyn Maye was on stage and a few beverages were flowing at the private club, a still-thriving bastion of old Wichita.
“Somebody said this is so much fun – why don’t we do this more often?” Stark remembers. “Being the ham I am, I said I’ll do it.”
By do it, Stark meant organize a group whose members would pool their money to bring entertainers to town who might not otherwise appear here.
Thus were the Grumpy Old Men born. Over the past five years, the group has quietly sponsored shows by everyone from Glen Campbell and Bernadette Peters to Martin Short and Johnny Mathis.
And that’s only half the story. Come December, the group will have donated more than a half-million dollars to local charities.
Members of the Grumpy Old Men call Stark “Head Grump” and the driving force behind the group.
Stark, 82, says arranging shows and venues, collecting dues and tending to his other self-imposed duties gives him something fun to do with his time.
“I am a super fan,” he said.
Stark is best known to many Wichitans as the owner of Stark Suburban Sound, which sold stereo components, and Comfort Care Homes. His family has been involved in numerous ventures, including, he said, producing a few movies in the Philippines in the 1970s.
“These were not classics,” he said.
The experience gave him a peek into the world of show business, information that he’s put to use on behalf of the Grumpy Old Men.
“I’m not shy,” he said. “I just started calling up managers” of entertainers to see if their clients could be enticed to perform here.
The answer was usually yes – if the money was right.
Stark started out by asking each member to ante up $500 per show, two or three times a year. By the time of their first show, in 2008, he had about 25 members and enough money to bring 1960s crooner Jack Jones to the Orpheum Theatre. Stark said he realized “To get the big stars, I would have to up the ante.”
So he asked members for $1,000 per show. “I thought I’d lose somebody but I didn’t,” he said.
“I’d perform for that,” joked another member of the group, retired public relations man Al Higdon.
Stark has capped membership at 100. “There’s always someone waiting to get in,” Stark said.
There are no papers to sign. “It’s all done on gentleman’s agreement,” Stark said.
So far, that is literally true. There are no female members.
“We’ve had people suggest that,” Stark said. “I’m not sure women would appreciate the moniker.”
Almost all members bring wives to the events, and if a member dies, his widow continues to receive invitations, Stark said.
The charitable aspect of Grumpy Old Men works like this: Whatever money the group has left over from paying the entertainer and covering other costs of a production goes to a charity. Eighteen such organizations have benefited – some to the tune of $50,000 a pop – including The Lord’s Diner, Kansas Food Bank, Youthville, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Alzheimer’s Association. Meanwhile, venues such as the Orpheum and Century II make money from additional tickets they sell to the show. The biggest show so far: Grammy Award-winning trumpeter and composer Chris Botti, who sold some 3,500 tickets to Century II. Chris Mann and Marvin Hamlisch are other entertainers the group has brought to Wichita.
The group’s members get a cocktail party and dinner along with each performance, and the last event each year is a private Christmas party.
“The idea that we get to be entertained by some of the old entertainers that some of us date to, of course we love that,” said Fred Berry, chairman emeritus of The Berry Cos. “It’s a group that most of us know each other to one extent or another. Then we generate a really nice contribution, a significant amount to one of the worthy charities in the area.”
“I think it’s great because of the leverage we’re able to get” pooling donations, added Charlie Chandler, CEO of Intrust Bank.
Chandler, who joined a couple of years ago, admits he’s only made it to one performance so far.
Not so Stark, who obviously relishes the performances and the negotiations leading up to each show.
The cliche is that the bigger the star, the nicer they are. Stark said it’s true. But that doesn’t always apply to their managers and agents, he noted.
Stark is working on a succession plan; his son-in-law might take over organizational responsibilities. “I intend to run it until I get too forgetful or tired, and I don’t see that happening soon.”
Despite the group’s name, he said, only about 25 percent are completely retired.
“Most of these guys stay in the saddle as long as they can.”
Nevertheless, he’s on the lookout for prospective younger members “so all my members don’t die.”
His personal favorite among the performers presented by the Grumpy Old Men? Johnny Mathis, who proved to be as warm and charming as his voice.
“Johnny Mathis does not do what they call ‘meet and greet,’ but he did this time,” Stark said.
Mathis even climbed out of the Orpheum’s basement dressing room to hug Stark’s wife, Mary Lou, who watched the show from a wheelchair.
“I told him he had helped me sell thousand of stereos back in the ’60s,” Stark said.