Hear from our beloved Cornell Wood as he talks about his almost 50-year career working at the Academy of Music
When Cornell Wood started at the Academy of Music as one of the first Black ushers in 1973, he did not think it would be a long-term gig, let alone his entire career. Over the next 47 years, Cornell dedicated his life to the “Grand Old Lady on Locust Street” eventually becoming the first Black Head Usher, and then House Manager (a position cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic). Now, he is retiring this month after a career of nearly half a century. Looking forward to restful time with family ahead (and lots of fishing!), Cornell reflects on time spent inside the historic Academy of Music.
How long have you worked at the Kimmel Cultural Campus?
I started as a part-time usher at the Academy of Music in 1973. But I also worked as a porter at the Academy which was actually my full-time job starting in about 1976. I was a part-time usher at night and a full-time porter by day. I never knew what a weekend was — that’s when I worked the most! People thought I was crazy growing up cause I never had a weekend.
How did you start working at the Academy of Music?
What brought me to the Academy was a friend of the family. He asked me if I would like a job at the Academy of Music as an usher. And at that time, I said yes and that I would apply. Then he introduced me to, at that time, the Head Usher and his name was Marc Scuncio. I always addressed him as Mr. Scuncio. Mr. Scuncio was the one who hired me on the spot the next day after he completed my interview.
What was the Academy of Music like when you first started, compared to today?
Well, when I first started at the Academy — it was really overwhelming for me. The fact that it was the 1st time inside a theater of that magnitude, and I was the only Black usher at that time. I was faced with many challenges related to my race but it didn’t stop me from performing the duties that I was required to do. That’s the difference between then, and I think now. I would say now, society has moved forward in the years since I started there, in a positive direction for diversity.
When I started at the Academy, I had absolutely no musical background. As a young, Black man coming in, I especially didn’t know anything about orchestra music. I would have never turned it on. Now, Michael Jackson – yes. Orchestra – no. So it was a real challenge for me because the guests would ask me about the show and I didn’t even know the strings from the trumpets. But then it was when my kids started getting older that I began learning more, and I learned more about music and all different forms of art than I ever thought I would. Beethoven’s 5th was always my favorite, and I would hum it around the house and my kids would make fun of me — “Dad, you’ve been working too long!” But I was able to introduce so much of my family to the arts and music, not to mention that many of them have come to work at the Academy as well — my brothers, daughters, son —It’s become a bit of a family affair. I couldn’t get home a lot, so I decided to bring them to work (laughs).
I’ve also seen Broad Street grow. I’ve seen it go away and I’ve seen it come back. It changed so fast, and then in the pandemic… without me coming downtown, I couldn’t believe how much had changed in a short period of time. Where did all this come from? These big condominiums just popped up! By me being on that street for all those years, I have seen so many buildings come and go. I remember when there were stores and restaurants where the Kimmel Center now stands. There used to be a cleaners there that we used to take our uniforms to. There used to be a park there, and then in a few months there was a building there. I watched it grow. It was exciting to be there and see it all happen on Broad Street over the years.
How did you feel being the first Black Head Usher?
When the position for Head Usher opened up, it was around 1995. I was very excited and honored to apply for it when it became available. I thought I had the skills and could complete most of the tasks that they were looking for in the job. I had been the Assistant Head Usher for many years. So I applied and I was interviewed by about 4 different people for the job. Mr. Hugh Walsh Jr., who was the Manager at the Academy at that time called me into his office and told me that I had the position! Well, when he told me that I was very excited to be not only one of the first Black ushers, but to be the first Black Head Usher. As a young black man, a young Afro-American, it was a very important time in my life and a very exciting time in my life. I was ready and able to meet that challenge.
Have you had the opportunity to meet anyone famous in your 47 years? Who were you the most starstruck to meet?
Wow — I would say it was back when I started, there was a performance there with Bette Davis — the movie star. I was really taken by her as a young Black man. (laughs) I loved Bette Davis! And after she came to the Academy, I got a chance to go backstage and meet her. She gave me her autograph on the Playbill and dedicated it to my first son that was just born. I just thought that was the greatest thing of all. It topped it all for me! I was then able to go back to my neighborhood and tell everyone that I met Betty Davis. I thought that was just the world.
But there are so many moments after that, I can’t even begin to start. I would have to write a whole book of them! But beyond that I’ve met Bill Cosby. Joe Biden, Stevie Wonder and lots of Orchestra performers that I can’t even begin to name… Luciano Pavarotti, big Opera singer— I went back stage with all them.
What is your favorite performance you have seen at the Academy of Music?
My absolute favorite show though was the Lippizan Horses that came to the Academy of Music. They had this act they were famous for where the horse was able to kick out its feet, front and back at almost the same time. That was the biggest thing about those horses. I found out that they couldn’t do it on the stage because of the slant of the stage. The stage was 2 feet higher in the back than in the front, so the horses couldn’t adjust to the grade. So everybody tried to figure out how do ballerinas make that differentiation when they perform too, because I guess it’s similar. A little later after the performance, I found out that was my favorite show. I was really taken by it. I just never thought I would see a horse on that stage. Period.
But I’ve seen so many great shows there. And a lot of them were just one-timers, so it wasn’t like I could see them again. I was lucky enough to see Patti LaBelle on stage. Another at the top of the list was The Lion King when they first came in 2006. It was a very challenging show for them to put on the first time at the Academy. They were cutting doors out and widening rows, and it was so interesting to see how that happened. It was just a spectacle.
I also remember when Age of Innocence was filmed there and we worked night and day with that show. I couldn’t believe all the stunts that they pulled to make people believe that it was back in the 1800s. They took down chandeliers and had cardboard people sitting in the theater that looked like real people. And I’m going —"I don’t believe this. This is crazy!” They even brought up all this mud in the front of the building and then covered it with all this white stuff on it to make snow, and I was like wow I didn’t know that’s how they did that! It was just always something going on there.
What is the most memorable moment you’ve had at the Academy of Music?
I was invited to the 150th Anniversary Academy Ball. Out of all the years I worked there, that was the only year that I actually got to go. I never thought I would get to go to that because it was for more wealthier people, and I was just a worker. Workers don’t get invited to things like that! But that was, wow, one of my best moments there. I don’t even remember who the big performer was that year because I was so much more excited to just have my tux on and be going to the Ball. I was too happy about where I was going. It was really something.
What has the Academy taught you in all these years?
The arts prepared for me a lot of situations in life, because there are so many different people in the arts. There are differences between the crowds — you gotta understand the difference between opera people, ballet people, rock show people, and Broadway people. You had to know your crowd, your guests — who is coming into your house. And that knowledge just opened up so many doors and made me aware of so many things I would have never learned just being in the neighborhood I lived in with my family. This job was almost like me being the first person to go to college —because I was able to come back and introduce my family to new things that I had learned. I remember taking my mom down to the Academy for the 1st time and her saying “Oh we used to not even be allowed through the front door!” (laughs)
If the Academy of Music could talk, what would you say to her? What would you ask her?
First of all, I guess I would say “Thank you.” (laughs) I would tell her, “thank you!” Only because as a young black man who was raised in the city of Philadelphia, she opened many doors for me and gave me many opportunities to do things. It gave me a great life. And a family life. That was my family and the Academy was my life. And I just hope that I treated her well because she treated me well. She was very good to me.
Now the second part of that question — I guess I would want to know “how did I do?” That’s what I would ask her. How did I do? Did I pass, or did I fail? Did I hold up the grace that is due to her? That’s what I would ask her.
What would you say to all the coworkers and patrons who you have interacted with these past years?
Well, to all my coworkers – they were the glue that made things roll and I wouldn’t be where I am now without the staff. They believed in me, and I believed in them, and they are the ones who helped me through these challenges to make my life a better life. Without them, I don’t think I would be here today. They are my heroes. And I am gonna miss working with them.
And to all the guests — I would say I’m gonna miss all the performances that they used to come to as well, and the relationships that grew between us talking about the performances. I’m gonna miss them, and, what I never thought would happen in my lifetime, that I would have a relationship with the patrons the way that I did. I did not see that coming, especially not the way it started out. It was very, very hard at first but as the years went on and the more they saw me, then the more they understood me, and the more I understood them.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’m gonna refer back to my boss Marc Scuncio. He was the one who gave me the best advice I ever knew. He offered me the initial job, and then he offered me the position of Assistant Head Usher. And when he offered that to me, it took me a little while to think about because I didn’t think I had it in me to do the job. But he did. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He thought I would be a great leader — and not just a great leader, but a person that could LEAD. And I’ve never forgotten that confidence he had in me and my skills.
What are you looking forward to most as you move into retirement?
I’m gonna do a lot of fishing, a lot of vacation and traveling, and the biggest thing is to spend a lot time with my grandchildren, my children, my wife, and my two great-grandchildren! But I am really looking forward to the time. The Academy took up a lot of my time, and I missed so many important things. I gave the Academy my life, I was there night and day. I still raised my family the best that I could, but I missed a lot of things. I made the most important ones, or I would show up late, because I always put that building first. I thought I was married to her! That’s the bottom line — I was married to the Academy before anything else. She had my only and my all. If anybody ever looked for me, that’s where they found me.
I used to have guests come up to me and say “you’re still here?!” And yep, I’m still here. I used to interact with guests who would bring their kids, and then their kids were grown, and I’m still working this job! And I would see those kids then bringing their kids, and I’m thinking ‘it’s time to go’ and now this time it was.
So I am looking forward to resting, but I know I will stop down from time to time and take in a show. …And that’s a bit of the history of Mr. Wood (laughs).
Cornell will be dearly missed by all those who had the pleasure of interacting with, whether as a coworker or patron. Happy trails, Cornell!