photo courtesy Fern Stewart Welch; Ken Welch in the art department of PHOENIX magazine back in 1966.

The Way We Were

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: History Issue: December 2015
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Valley businessman Kenneth Welch set out to make publishing history in 1966. And you’re reading it.

November 1966. At an avant-garde art show in London, John Lennon first locks eyes with Yoko Ono. Napalm bombs flame through the fields of Vietnam. LSD enthusiasts bemoan the newly-outlawed status of their “electric Kool-Aid.” And in the Valley of the Sun, former military band leader Kenneth Welch conducts his latest opus: the launch of PHOENIX magazine.

The premiere cover was a rhapsody in blue: a crescendo of skyscrapers and construction cranes painted in optimistic periwinkle. The publisher’s letter hit an equally exuberant note: “[A]s a voice for one of the fastest-growing and beautiful cities in the nation, we have an exciting story to tell, both to Phoenicians and to the country at large.”

Phoenix was an adolescent city then, and flipping through the first issues of PHOENIX magazine is like peering into a teenager’s yearbooks. One notices the hallmarks of puberty, on a metropolitan scale: regrettable haircuts, wide-eyed optimism, nail-biting inferiority complexes.

It’s understandable. Metro Phoenix experienced a more dramatic post-war growth spurt than the average American city. From the early 1940s to the mid-1960s, the Valley’s population skyrocketed from 85,000 to 894,000. Fed by Boomer babies and picket-fence dreams, the town’s surface area swelled from less than 10 square miles to nearly 300. “The atmosphere during the ’50s and ’60s was reminiscent of a gold-strike boom town,” editorial director Fern Stewart Welch wrote in PHOENIX’s 20th anniversary issue. “[There] was an excitement that caused the blood to race, ambitions to rise and greed to surface.”

Into this young city marched Kenneth and Anita Welch, who would create what is now one of the nation’s oldest city magazines. “They had fallen in love with Arizona,” says Fern, who now lives in Scottsdale. “They wanted to gift the Valley with a publication that would help guide [people], as the city was ill-prepared to cope with the growth that swept the area at the end of WWII.”

photo courtesy Fern Stewart WelchVariously called “a Renaissance man,” “a humanist,” “mercurial,” and “difficult,” Kenneth had strummed his way through several historic world events. Proficient with five instruments, he served as a Navy officer and musician in the European and Pacific theaters of WWII. He became a professor of music at Boston University, occasionally conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra. During the Korean War, he led the Naval Aviation Cadet Choir of Pensacola, Florida all the way to The Ed Sullivan Show.

Later, he moved to Michigan and became director of public affairs for Time-Life Broadcast Co., earning the Peabody Award for documentaries he produced. Meanwhile, his wife, Anita, created a successful career writing and performing in theater, and had her own television show in Grand Rapids.     

The Welches might have stayed in the Midwest were it not for one bum note: Kenneth’s joints. Crippling arthritis made it almost impossible for him to play music. The solution: move to sunny, salutary Arizona.

At the time, Americans were weary of foreign wars and longed for lighter, local news. So media moguls from San Diego to Atlanta started a handful of so-called “city magazines.” Kenneth and Anita wanted to join their ranks.

They arrived in 1960 in a virtual magazine desert. The only monthly was Phoenix Point West, launched by wealthy glider plane enthusiast Joe Lincoln and Moyca Christy Manoil, the first female correspondent in the Korean War and former president of Planned Parenthood of Arizona.

Unfortunately, the Welches’ funds were similarly desert-like. For a few years, Kenneth worked in advertising while Anita freelanced for Phoenix Point West and The Arizonian, a Scottsdale weekly founded by Brooks Darlington, onetime manager of Barry Goldwater’s Senate campaign. (Let it not be said that Phoenix’s publishing pioneers were dull.) In 1966, Lincoln decided to shutter Phoenix Point West, and Kenneth tried to take it off his hands. “No,” Lincoln said. “I just want to put it up on the shelf, look at it and enjoy it.”

The Welches had to start from scratch. They put together a business plan and presented it to their friend Karl Eller.

Eller grew up poor in a Tucson boardinghouse his single mother operated. Spurred by hunger and a fiery work ethic, young Karl rose at 3:30 each morning to deliver the Arizona Daily Star to more than 500 homes. He joined the Army and served in Japan, attended the University of Arizona (which later named their business school after him), then went into advertising.

Eller’s fate changed in 1961 at age 33. His former boss offered him four city operations of a billboard company – if he could raise $5 million in 90 days. Several audacious meetings later, he was the proud owner of Eller Outdoor Advertising in Phoenix. He would eventually co-found the Phoenix Suns, become president of Columbia Pictures and CEO of Circle K, and roller-coaster between millionairedom and bankruptcy.

Clearly no stranger to risk, Eller agreed to back the publication and serve on the editorial advisory board. The staff – a quartet including the Welches, business manager Pearl Mullvain and art director Elmo Sears – set up at 1103 N. Central Ave., above KTAR-TV. PHOENIX magazine was born.

 

photo courtesy Fern Stewart Welch, Used with permission of the Arizona Republic; Kenneth Welch conducting the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio ItalienIn some ways, the first issue in November 1966 could have been written today. A feature about Downtown muses: “Concerned individuals and groups are zeroing in on the exasperating problem common to all major cities: What can be done to breathe new life into sagging city centers?”

But turn to the fashion spread shot at Phoenix Theatre Center, and it’s clearly another era: “Theatre in Phoenix is a sometimes black-tie affair,” the caption asserts. “Mrs. Richard Mallery... wears a coachman’s coat of white brocade accented with rhinestone buttons over her brocade gown.”

Even the weather was different (which perhaps explains the brocade gowns). “There was a brilliant morning last winter when the South Mountains were dazzlingly snow-capped for a few hours,” wrote Paul Hughes in his “Happy Valley” column.

Early issues provide a retrospective on Phoenix’s awkward-teen years, including its insecurities. One reader wrote in: “[PHOENIX magazine] can serve as a very effective reminder to the rest of the country that we are no longer a dusty little town.” Writer Robert R. Rinehart wrestled with the Valley’s readiness for its first pro sports team: “Is Phoenix sufficiently sophisticated to support a losing professional team for perhaps four or five years?... Will those who follow professional athletics back a team that will lose games by embarrassing scores before it wins even a few close ones?” (Apparently, yes. The Phoenix Suns were created two years later but remained the city’s only major professional team for two decades.)

The arts scene also experienced growing pains. Reporting on Phoenix Theatre’s remodel, Anita Welch enthused, “Actors no longer need worry about the old boards creaking or of the hazards of catching heels in numerous termite holes.”

But theatergoers’ tastes changed more slowly than the stage boards. Due to “a certain provincialism,” one article rued, the run of This Was Burlesque at Phoenix Star Theatre (now Celebrity Theatre) wasn’t the rousing success it was in New York. Producer Buster Bonoff noted, “Some would call for tickets and avoid mentioning the show by name.” Likewise, the Sombrero Playhouse’s performance of Marat/Sade – a borscht of blood, sadism and insanity, or what the magazine called “pretty heady stuff” – didn’t make a killing. “Phoenix audiences prefer blander fare,” the writer tut-tutted, “and some first nighters were conspicuously absent after the first act.”

Still, optimism and pride radiate from every page. The magazine extolled Phoenix’s technological contributions to the space race, predicting poetically, “When the first American lands on the moon, he will have reached his goal through the Valley of the Sun.”

One article broke the news about an exciting development from General Electric’s Phoenix plant: the personal computer (actually a teletypewriter connected via telephone lines to GE). The possibilities sent the writer’s mind reeling: “Could something be developed along the computer line whereby it could change [TV] channels for us, delivering the program in either black and white or color?”

Columnist Paul Hughes resembles Saturday Night Live's Stuart Smalley doing his daily affirmations when he wrote: “[Phoenix] surely does take the championship for cosmopolitanism per person... I’m a wide-eyed innocent. And I’m rejoicing that Phoenix has so much to be wide-eyed about... [I]f this isn’t the capital of the world, what is?”

 

photo courtesy Fern Stewart Welch; a clipping of a letter from the mayor from page 3 of the inaugural issue of PHOENIX magazinePHOENIX magazine navigated its first decade with cover stories about the “Goldwater mystique,” divorce in Maricopa County, and male needlepointers. For the first few years, it was published in association with the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, which called the magazine “the Arizona Highways of the business community.” But in 1969, the Chamber decided to part ways and publish its own magazine.

Around the same time, Karl Eller’s company morphed into another corporation that invested heavily in broadcast journalism. The Federal Communications Commission smelled a local media monopoly, so with a handshake agreement, Eller divested from PHOENIX magazine and Kenneth Welch purchased it. (In 2012, Eller sustained head injuries in a bicycle fall; he survived but was not available to be interviewed for this article.)

In the mid ’70s, a television company offered Kenneth and Anita seven figures for the magazine, but they turned it down. “They didn’t start the publication for monetary reasons,” Fern Stewart Welch says. “They were fully expressing what they claimed was their life purpose, and they weren’t about to walk away from that.”

Anita started as a writer for the magazine, then rose to associate editor after two issues and editor-in-chief after two years. She died in 1978. In 1981, Kenneth married then-PR agency owner Fern Stewart Welch, who became PHOENIX magazine’s editorial director.

Over the years, Kenneth was “publisher, editor, sales and promotion manager, midnight paste-up and production artist as well as sometimes gardener,” according to Fern, who says that between sales deals, Kenneth tended the building’s plants with a watering can.

“I hug to my heart the fact that Ken was recognized by many as a Renaissance man and a humanist who cared very deeply for the well-being of the people of this city and this state,” says Fern, who has authored five books about spiritual growth.

But Kenneth wasn’t all daisies and watering cans. “He could be difficult,” says Jeff Burger, editor-in-chief from 1980 to 1984. “He could be a little mercurial, and he had a temper.” Burger recalls a time when Kenneth returned from vacation, hated the cover the staff had created, and threw the magazine across the room. By the next day, Kenneth was all smiles, saying, “Don’t worry about it.”

“Ken was a businessman first,” says Vicky Hay, who worked with Welch as business editor in the ’80s. “He didn’t really understand what journalism was about. He did and he didn’t. The name of the game was to make money.” Rumor has it some of the first letters to the editor – filled with “sincerelys” and proper grammar and other epistolary niceties that have since gone the way of the wax seal – were written by Kenneth’s booster friends, at his request.

“He saw the magazine as boosting Phoenix and making the city look good, no question about that,” Burger says. “He wanted to paint a positive picture of Phoenix. But to his credit, for most of the time I was there, I went in a different direction, and he allowed me to do it.” (Even if it meant publishing Burger’s searing interview with the leader of Arizona’s Ku Klux Klan.)

Kenneth could also be financially – how does one put it politely? – conservative, according to associates. “He did not want to pay you any money,” Hay says. “The editorial and art department were on starvation wages.”

Even in the 1980s, as the industry moved to electronic publishing tools like desktop computers and Atex terminals, Kenneth remained firmly analog. The editors used typewriters, articles arrived in the mail, and a machine generated typeset copy that the staff pasted onto boards two pages at a time, all night long. When Kenneth saw the need to upgrade, “he decides we’re going to get a computer – a computer,” Hay quips. “[It] was on this cart that rolled from office to office.”

Still, Kenneth was a pioneer in the magazine world, helping form the national City and Regional Magazine Association and serving as its president in 1982 and 1983. In March 1989, he retired at age 67, selling most of PHOENIX magazine to a local investment group but remaining on the board of directors. After a series of illnesses including pneumonia and congestive heart failure, Kenneth died in 2004.

But in many ways his legacy of optimism lives on in these pages. And 50 years from now, readers may look back on the current issues of PHOENIX magazine and smirk at our wide-eyed exuberance, our nail-biting inferiority complexes and, almost certainly, our haircuts.

 

the cover of the premiere issue50th Anniversary Countdown
When Kenneth Welch shipped the first issue of PHOENIX a half-century ago, could he have suspected that his fledgling publication would outlast segregation, the Vietnam War and the Cine Capri?

Over the next six months, PHOENIX will wax nostalgic in a series of monthly features about the magazine, its subscribers and adverstisers, and the city we love covering so dearly. In pictures and words, you’ll experience the people, news events and seismic cultural shifts that have defined the Valley over the last 50 years. This feature was the first in that series.

Our golden anniversary self-fête will culminate in the May issue with an epic year-by-year overview of Greater Phoenix since 1966, with photos from our archives and outtakes from our most memorable issues. Until then: Enjoy the party.