Signs of the past: How Sun City shaped today’s symphony

Posted 5/12/22

Many were attracted to Sun City for different reasons, but for James Butterfield, it was the lack of a symphony that caused him to come.

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Signs of the past: How Sun City shaped today’s symphony


Many were attracted to Sun City for different reasons, but for James Butterfield, it was the lack of a symphony that caused him to come.

He and his wife retired from a successful musical life in Cape Cod and were preparing to move to Scottsdale. Watching a program on Arizona, Lillian learned about a fast-growing retirement community called “Sun City.” They contacted a friend in Arizona to learn more, and when James learned it had no symphony, they decided to move there.

Once here, the Butterfields met with a small number of music-loving residents in May 1968 to form a symphony board. Contacts were made with musical organizations, and Butterfield spent countless hours and miles of travel recruiting musicians from Luke Air Force Base, the Phoenix and Flagstaff symphonies, and Arizona State University.

The symphony’s opening night, Nov. 24, 1968, was a sell-out! In six short months, Butterfield gathered 65 musicians for the first concert — seven of whom were Sun City residents. Tickets cost $2.50 and a crowd of nearly 1,000 filled the auditorium at Town Hall South (now Mountain View Center, 9749 N. 107th Ave.) to hear music of Rossini, Mozart, Grieg, Strauss and Chabrier. The evening was a smashing success!        

As its popularity grew, the symphony moved to the larger auditorium at Sundial Center, 14801 N. 103rd Ave. But that, too, filled up and attention was drawn to the new Sundome built in Sun City West. At first, the concern was “How will we ever fill it up?” At that time, Sun City West was projected to have a population of 70-75,000 and the Sundome would serve it, Sun City and the surrounding area, offering greater reach for the symphony.

The decision to move paid off big-time with the symphony reaching peak attendance of more than 5,000, selling more season tickets than any other symphony in the nation! 

Moving to the Sundome, the Sun City Symphony became the Sun Cities Symphony. Butterfield retired in 1981 after the opening season in the Sundome, and passed away the following year.

Several talented conductors followed Butterfield, and in 1986 it was decided to broaden the search. A total of 160 resumes were received from around the world, and the list was culled to five men. Each was invited to conduct one performance during the 1987-88 season. Maestro James Yestadt was selected and served as conductor until 2006. In 2004, it became the West Valley Symphony.

The symphony’s successful run was interrupted by closing the Sundome in 2001 for a $5 million renovation and remodeling. That affected both the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons. Just as things began to pick up, Arizona State University officials announced the Sundome would be permanently closed in 2005. Concerts were moved to Prince of Peace Catholic Church, 14818 W. Deer Valley Drive, Sun City West, but the much smaller capacity resulted in a serious decline in revenues, and the final two concerts of the 2005-06 season were cancelled. 

In 2007, a generous bequest from J. E. Donald Hastie of Sun City enabled the West Valley Symphony to reinvent itself. It moved to the Valley Vista Performing Arts Center, 15660 N. Parkview Place, Surprise, and Maestro Kellogg was named music director/conductor in 2009. He has become an audience favorite due to his personable style and leadership of the orchestra. Kellogg has devoted many hours to giving talks to local groups about the background of key composers and residents are privileged to have him here at Royal Oaks, 10015 W. Royal Oak Road, Sun City Tuesday, Nov. 15 to introduce the coming concert season.

Editor’s Note: Historian Ed Allen is a volunteer for the Del Webb Sun Cities Museum, 10801 W. Oakmont Drive, Sun City.


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