By Joe Livernois
- Balcony seats to “Hamilton” in San Francisco: $245.
- The value of a home with a view of Point Pinos: $4.2 million.
- Sending 9,000 eighth-graders to see “Hamilton”: Priceless.
Call it the ultimate eighth-grade field trip. Tickets to “Hamilton” at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco are red-hot commodities, with seats in the orchestra section selling for up to $860 each. But officials for the Dan and Lillian King Foundation, a little-known charitable organization based in Monterey County, announced last week that they bought 9,000 of them — at a discount — so that every eighth-grade student in Monterey County can see the Tony Award-winning musical for themselves.
Not only that, but the foundation is paying for the U.S. Constitution curriculum that will be taught in all eighth-grade classrooms leading up to the students attending “Hamilton.” And it is paying for and coordinating the tricky logistics of getting all the students from Monterey County to the Orpheum Theatre and back. That’s 9,000 students, teachers and chaperones, from Lockwood to Big Sur to Pajaro.
The cost of the entire effort is estimated at $2 million, all of it underwritten by the King Foundation, according to Deneen Guss, Monterey County superintendent of schools. “But the reality is you can’t pay enough for a once-in-a-lifetime experience like this,” she said.
“It all just came together,” said Marc Del Piero, a former Monterey County supervisor who had the original brainstorm and who first reached out to the Lin-Manuel Miranda team to make it work.
So how did this bold idea come to pass? Who were Dan and Lillian King? And how will the logistics work?
Lillian King died in 2011 at the age of 103 in her Pacific Grove home, surrounded by her caretakers. By all accounts, she was an elegant and eccentric character who favored the jangle of her gold bracelets, red lipstick and gold coins.
She had been married to the heir of the storied King Ranch in Texas. The ranch, which at about 825,000 acres is located in six different counties. It was established in 1853 by Capt. Richard King, a river boat pilot, and the ranch is fabled to be the model for “Giant,” the Edna Ferber novel later made into a film starring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor. Dan and Lillian King moved to the Monterey Peninsula in the 1980s, purchasing five or six homes and keeping a relatively low profile.
If the widowed Lillian King had a public presence at all in Monterey County, it was as an advocate for the continued education of the U.S. Constitution in public schools. But she found herself in the headlines in 2005 when authorities had to remove her from her home after the discovery that she was living in squalor.
After the dust settled, police had arrested her grandniece, Cynthia Hurley, on charges that she had absconded with about $2 million in coins, art and jewelry that were missing from the home. Another $500,000 worth of coins had also been stolen from her storage unit in Monterey.
Hurley eventually pleaded no contest to taking tens of thousands of dollars worth of coins. She had claimed she had taken them with King’s permission to pay off property tax bills owed on King’s real estate. She spent less than a year in jail.
When Lillian King died in 2011, her estate was estimated to be worth about $6.5 million. After her death, Nader Agha established the Dan and Lillian King Foundation. Agha, a high-profile developer and businessman on the Monterey Peninsula, befriended and helped Lillian King through her dotage. The primary mission of the foundation he created is to advance learning of the U.S. Constitution among students in Monterey County. Since then, the foundation paid to provide students with copies of the Constitution and several schools received grants to upgrade its government curriculum. It also teamed up with the Monterey County Office of Education to sponsor the Constitution Project, which includes special events and focussed curriculum encouraging civic engagement.
But it had been operating with fits and starts for some time. There was that time, several years ago, when the foundation board envisioned a U.S. Constitution learning center on Alvarado, on property owned by Agha. According to a published report, foundation board members, including Agha, found themselves fighting allegations of self-dealing in a court action filed by the Community Foundation for Monterey County. According to Lillian King’s trust, the assets of the King Foundation will become the property of the Community Foundation when Agha is no longer chairman of the King Foundation board, according to Dan Baldwin, president and CEO of the Community Foundation.
When the foundation sold King’s big house — the one with the view of Point Pinos — for $4.2 million, it knew it had to step up its game. (After expenses and other obligations, the foundation had about $3.7 million in revenue from the house.) According to regulations that guide nonprofit foundations, at least 5 percent of a foundation’s capital must be spent on its mission annually. The infusion of cash from the house sale meant that the foundation board had to look beyond handing out copies of the Constitution each year.
Members of the King Foundation board knew they needed help spending the proceeds from the sale of the house without tripping over legal problems. They turned to Marc Del Piero, an attorney by profession who had developed a public reputation as an audacious — if not bombastic — mediator.
Del Piero was an up-and-coming local politician when he was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1981, at the age of 27. He had been raised on the Monterey County side of the Pajaro River, at the extreme north end of the county, the twin son of fourth-generation California farmers.
His ambition and talent sent him to Sacramento, where he served as a member of the state Water Resources Control Board. The five-member board serves as a full-time professional organization charged with protecting the state’s water supply. Among California water experts, Del Piero is remembered for what became known as the “Mono Lake Decision,” during which he presided over a 46-day hearing that involved 14 different parties of interest. His ruling ended 20 years of litigation involving the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Committee to Save Mono Lake. Del Piero’s ruling forced Los Angeles to return water it had taken from the lake.
After returning from Sacramento, Del Piero represented water interests throughout the state, but he also ran an unsuccessful campaign for Monterey County judge and a failed campaign to return to the Board of Supervisors. Most recently, he has been a trustee for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court system. He was also involved with the board of the Monterey History and Art Association and has been credited with negotiating the transformation of the museum at Custom House Plaza in Monterey to the Dali17 museum.
On Oct. 13, 2017, Del Piero sent a blind email to Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father, Luis, inviting the cast and crew of “Hamilton” to come to Monterey County to stage up to three performances for all eighth-grade students in the county. Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creator and star of “Hamilton.”
In that first email (in which he misspells Lin-Manuel), Del Piero described the demographics of the county, Lillian King’s passion for the Constitution and the mission of the King Foundation. “Given the poverty level in our county, we believe that our Foundation may need to cover the entire cost of the tickets for the students to attend,” he wrote.
The King Foundation board asked Del Piero to join the board because they knew he thought big. But board members sort of humored Del Piero when he came up with the idea of bringing the Hamilton cast to Monterey County, remembers Stephen Collins, the part-time executive director of the foundation. “But he’s a mover and a shaker,” Collins said. “He thinks big and deep.”
What followed was a lengthy exchange of email between Del Piero and Luis Miranda, an activist who looks after the charitable arm of the “Hamilton” production. There would be no Monterey County visit, but eventually Del Piero and Miranda worked out a deal for significantly lowered ticket prices so that 9,000 students could attend. Del Piero said that he is bound by an agreement the foundation made with the producers of “Hamilton” not to divulge the price they got for the tickets. But he did say the King Foundation might extend the program into the following school year, depending on the success of this year’s effort.
The Monterey County Office of Education has been working with the King Foundation on smaller civics-related programs for several years. But when Del Piero first broached the “Hamilton” idea with MCOE officials, Guss said, “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what an amazing opportunity for our students.’”
Getting the tickets was one thing, but foundation officials also knew they needed to establish a curriculum based on the history and precepts of “Hamilton,” and they had to figure out a way to bus 9,000 students to San Francisco. The logistics seemed overwhelming.
“How do we get 9,000 permission slips from parents?” said Stephen Collins, executive director of the King Foundation. “How do we get 9,000 kids on buses? How do we provide security? How are we going to feed them all?” Collins and others have been working out details with San Francisco’s police and fire departments, with the Orpheum Theatre and with individual school districts.
And they’ve been working with the Monterey County Office of Education to provide a curriculum for students that will prepare them for what they’ll be seeing in San Francisco.
“We knew we didn’t want to just give away tickets without any of the background or context,” Del Piero said. Eighth-grade teachers will be trained by the MCOE this summer with the appropriate curriculum and instructional resources. At its core, students will learn and analyze the political principles underlying the U.S. Constitution, will understand the foundation of the American political system and will be asked to determine what “freedom meant to the nation’s founders and how (it) changed over time,” according to Guss, the county schools superintendent.
“These students will be fully knowledgeable of the Constitution, about who Alexander Hamilton was and about his part in the history of the country,” Collins said. Collins is the King Foundation’s only staff member, and he is a part-time employee. “It’s been more like overtime during the last several months, though,” he said with a laugh.
In addition to learning about the founding of the United States prior to their trip to San Francisco, students will also be taught the etiquette of the theater, Guss said. They’ll be encouraged to dress up for the show, for instance, and to be silent when the actors are on stage.
On Tuesday, Collins met with MCOE transportation officials, two assistant superintendents and a representative from Discovery Charter, a private tour bus operation based in Castroville, to work out the logistics.
At least 30 buses will be needed to get up to 1,500 students and chaperones to each of the six matinee performances the foundation has booked in the coming school year. That’s 180 buses in all. The limited supply of school buses and the need to keep them on their daily schedules complicated the logistics, so the King Foundation board decided to contract the services of the tour bus company.
“It’s one thing to get students in Pajaro on buses for a quick trip to San Francisco,” Del Piero said. “But it’s another thing when you’re talking about schools in Lockwood and Jolon. That’s a very long trip.”
The goal is to provide a memorable and educational experience, Del Piero said. “A lot of these kids have never seen the ocean before, much less been to San Francisco to see a Tony Award-winning musical,” he said.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that assets from the King Foundation will become property of the Community Foundation for Monterey County when Nader Agha is no longer chairman of the King Foundation.
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