One day several months ago, however, Robert Rosenthal came to town and invited key country music decisionmakers to lunch. No one on Music Row knew Rosenthal, a retired successful Hollywood entertainment lawyer, but they were intrigued with his idea, and many knew and respected Cathy Gurley, a veteran public relations executive in town, whom Rosenthal had hired to help him.
With his group assembled, Rosenthal dazzled them by explaining the Spirit of America Tour and introduced top military officers from every branch of the armed forces, all supporting his idea: have top country artists perform free shows at United States military bases. Naturally, as this is a charity, he asked the artists to volunteer their time for the show, waiving their typical performance fee.
But there was more: Rosenthal insisted on paying all of the acts' expenses.
"I know enough to know how not to get the entertainer," Rosenthal said recently from his Los Angeles office. "I don't ever want the entertainer to say, 'I did a show for the American Spirit Tour and I lost money.' I want them to say, 'I had a ball.'"
When the meeting was over, Rosenthal was bombarded with enthusiastic promises, many of which resulted in subsequent bookings.
"It's a no-brainer when you talk to the people in Nashville," he said.
Even with the promise of paying all expenses, few could have pulled off what Rosenthal has in the months since he and his wife, Nina, conceived the idea of the Spirit of America Tour. In 2003, he booked 15 shows with A-list artists, ranging from Charlie Daniels to Jo Dee Messina to Travis Tritt, all to rave reviews from both the audiences and the artists.
"This has been a great honor for me," said Travis Tritt, who played two shows. "The Spirit of America organization has given me the opportunity to meet some of the most heroic people I've ever met in my life. Our troops are willing to put their lives on the line to protect our freedom and spending time with them is a privilege."
Bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent is scheduled to perform Saturday for the Coast Guard Academy in Cape May, N.J., which is the Spirit of America's 14th show of the year.
Turning an idea into a success is nothing new for Rosenthal, 67, who retired in 2000 after a career as a film producer, an entertainment attorney specializing in child actor litigation, and leadership positions on dozens of nonprofit organizations.
The birth of the Spirit of America Tour came on the heels of 9/11.
"After Sept. 11, (Nina and I) both decided we wanted to do something for the United States," Rosenthal said recently from his Los Angeles office.
Nina Rosenthal, who is English, remembered during World War II that many families would invite American troops in their homes for tea, including her own. Broadening this idea of hospitality, the Rosenthals developed the Spirit of America Tour.
Partnering with country music occurred when Rosenthal found that many of his Hollywood friends scoffed at the idea of having entertainers perform for free.
"My general gist from my Hollywood friends would be to look at me and say I was nuts," Rosenthal said. "But the minute I said it in Nashville, they said 'How can I help? What a great idea.'
"It's a difference in patriotism and a different attitude," he said. "It's a different world and that's why we deal primarily with the country entertainers."
Gaining support from the entertainment industry was one thing. Rosenthal knew he also needed the military's support for the tour to be successful, which he accomplished through a series of unlikely events.
Rosenthal and Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. secretary of defense, shared a mutual friend. When Rosenthal mentioned the idea to his friend, he recommended that Rosenthal write a letter to Rumsfeld briefly explaining the idea. At an upcoming holiday party given by Vice President Dick Cheney, Rosenthal's friend said he would deliver the letter to Rumsfeld, who, reading the letter on the spot, said "this is a no-brainer," according to Rosenthal, and passed the letter to an aide. The aide followed up with Rosenthal the next week and, suddenly, he had military support from the top.
The country acts which have participated have understood the win-win of the situation, as well. The tour is purposefully designed to invite acts who are traveling near a United States military base en route from one tour stop to another. Rosenthal combines that with his offer to let the Robert and Nina Rosenthal Foundation, which funds all of the stops on the Spirit of America Tour, pick up the bill for a patriotic stopover at a base.
BeBe Evans, director of touring for the Charlie Daniels Band, was in the audience during Rosenthal's Nashville presentation. She immediately knew that Daniels would want to participate.
"It is something that Charlie has been wanting to do with the USO, which is entertain domestically," Evans said recently from her Nashville-area office.
Because the USO only travels to U.S. military bases that are overseas, the organization could not accommodate Daniels' request.
But here was someone who had the same vision as Daniels and, better yet, would pay expenses.
"Charlie is, of course, in a position to donate time and money, but not everybody else can," Evans said. "It's hard to take a day out of our schedule and say, 'We're going to work for free today.'"
Rosenthal asks each act to name its fee, keeping in mind the charitable aspect of the show. With the fee and other show expenses, including sound and lights, the shows cost between $10,000 and $20,000 each, Rosenthal said. The Rosenthal's family foundation, which accepts no corporate sponsor, underwrites all shows, and is ready for the future.
"We are fully-funded for next year," Rosenthal said, though Spirit of America Tour stops cannot be scheduled until artists' regular tour dates are finalized.
Having a nonprofit organization pay all of an act's expenses is certainly a plus, but Evans insists the success behind the Spirit of America Tour goes beyond finances.
"The other reason that it works is that Robert Rosenthal is the most thorough person that I've met with details," Evans said. "He does not want this to fail. He takes a lot of time setting up the day in advance. He's been very careful about that. He's hired the first-class sound and light companies, most of which we have worked with in the past. Everything has been first class.
"Then, you get the part that you're working on a military base, which Charlie loves and my guys love," she said. "Everybody wants to do something for the military. ... We've had two really good experiences."
Daniels is scheduled for another date on Sept. 11, where he will perform for 10,000 graduates and their guests at the Great Lakes Naval Training Base in Illinois, the only training facility for incoming Navy recruits.
"We really like doing it," Evans said. "We'll do more. I'm really excited that Charlie Daniels is in a position in his career to do this. It gives something free to these military bases, and they don't get a lot for free."
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