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After 58 Years, CCSF Music Chair Closer Than Ever to Realizing Her Dream

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An older woman wearing glasses and a pink coat smiles as she leans on a grand piano
Music department chair Madeline Mueller poses for a portrait at City College of San Francisco on May 17, 2024. Mueller has taught at the college for 58 years and is the college’s longest-tenured employee. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After 58 years of sharing her passion for music and the arts with City College of San Francisco students, music department chair Madeline Mueller may finally get what she’s always wanted.

As the college’s longest-tenured employee, Mueller is just as committed to advocating for a much overdue performing arts auditorium as she is to using her vast musical knowledge, sharp eye for detail and willingness to do any job to keep the music department running.

Only then, Mueller said, will she consider retirement.

“I could have retired years ago,” Mueller said. “But I made a promise to myself and to the administration that I wouldn’t retire — I used to say until they built the auditorium.”


For Mueller, the issue is simple: City College is an incomplete campus without a proper auditorium to support its performing arts majors, including music and theater.

The college has been discussing the project for years and even came close to breaking ground in 2012. However, after budget cuts and state roadblocks, Mueller said she was left feeling more like Charlie Brown from the Peanuts comic strips.

“It’s like Lucy and the football,” Mueller said.

Lucy is the state, the administration and budget cuts — everything that has stopped the theater from being built. Mueller is Charlie Brown.

However, with renewed plans for the theater to go to the state for approval, City College seems closer than ever to building the performing arts auditorium of Mueller’s dreams. The project has an architect, design plans and a contractor.

What appear to be detailed architectural renderings, including mock-up illustrations of an interior space, are displayed in a glass case
Plans for a new performing arts center hang in the City College of San Francisco music department on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

City College is hopeful the state will approve the plans before the end of 2024, and media reports have the auditorium tentatively scheduled to open in 2027.

“She’s been working for over 40 years to get our performing arts center designed,” said Steven Brown, horticulture department chair, who sits on the facilities committee with Mueller.

But before Mueller started her quest for a major auditorium at City College, she was an aspiring concert pianist, following in Beethoven’s footsteps.

‘She’s a brilliant pianist’

As a girl in Bakersfield, Mueller studied under Ethel McManus Shaver, her link to an illustrious chain of five pianists that stretches back to Beethoven. But like many aspiring performers, Mueller needed a backup plan, and hers was a community college teaching credential.

In 1965, two weeks into its fall semester, City College’s band director departed for a new position at San Francisco State, leaving his old post vacant. The music department suddenly needed a full-time substitute teacher.

A detailed close-up photograph of hands playing a piano
Music department chair Madeline Mueller plays piano at the City College of San Francisco on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Mueller stepped into her new teaching role that year. She fell in love with the college immediately.

“I was enchanted,” she said. “The school had such diversity. And the students were so smart and appreciative.”

Even after she began teaching, Mueller continued to perform — and not just at faculty recitals — at concerts throughout the Bay Area.

“She could have gone on to a career as an accompanist,” said Lenny Carlson, a retired City College music professor and jazz musician. “She’s a brilliant pianist.”

Carlson often chose Mueller, who’s premiered a lot of modern music as a soloist and as a part of an ensemble, to debut his compositions.

“I really enjoy writing music that has humor in it because I know that she will get it, however subtle it is,” Carlson said, who’s an accomplished jazz guitarist and composer.

Many of Mueller’s colleagues agree she has been the primary force in shaping the college’s music department over the decades. Her influence, whether teaching music or championing the department’s auditorium, is significant.

“This department wouldn’t exist without Madeline,” said Lynette Warfield, the former music department secretary. “And if it did, it would be an empty shell.”

An older woman wearing glasses and a pink coat speaks to a younger student as he plays a grand piano
Music department chair Madeline Mueller works with piano student Francisco Guijarro at the City College of San Francisco on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Once, Warfield said she witnessed an intradepartmental argument reach what she described as the point of no return — one person accused the other of having a terrible voice.

“After they talked to Madeline, the two were singing together,” Warfield said. “When Madeline is in the office, there’s harmony.”

For nearly 60 years, Mueller’s advocacy for the performing arts department at City College was witnessed at local gatherings with City College’s Board of Trustees, the Academic Senate and the Facilities Committee. Without fail, Mueller always made it a point to be present, often remaining until she was the sole occupant in the room.

“She’s always been an advocate,” Carlson said. “She was one of the founders of the Academic Senate and the Department Chairs’ Council.”

Mueller also serves on the Facilities Committee, which has overseen the planning of the new performing arts theater. Now, the project is the top priority on the Facilities Committee’s latest five-year plan and has a $185 million budget. Plans for the new theater are currently in front of the Division of the State Architect — and the committee hopes to have approval by December 2024.

‘We’re clawing back’

As plans slowly inch forward, City College’s lack of an auditorium to support its performing arts majors continues to be a goal Mueller and other faculty members rally around.

“We’re the only school in the whole system that doesn’t have an auditorium,” Mueller said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Students walk down steps leading to the planned site for a new performing arts center at the City College of San Francisco on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The music department is not alone.

Brown, of the City College horticulture department, recalled a faculty meeting from early in his tenure with such a large number of participants that it couldn’t be hosted at the school’s Diego Rivera Theater.

“We had to rent the Riordan auditorium,” Brown said. “The private Catholic high school across the street has a bigger auditorium than City College, even though City College’s student body is 10 times bigger.”

During her tenure, Mueller said she’s watched CCSF prioritize other department buildings over the proposed performing arts center.

In 2000, Mueller said planning for a new auditorium began in earnest. Yet, after the performing arts and PE departments expressed a need for new facilities in 2001, an internal agreement stipulated that the PE department would prioritize the first portion of the construction.

The Wellness Center, which contains new gym facilities, was completed in 2008.

Music department chair Madeline Mueller looks through a 2016 issue of Etc Magazine, which features photos of herself at the City College of San Francisco on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In the following years, the college hired an architecture firm, TEF Design, to draw up plans for the new performing arts center, but it was unable to obtain state-matching funds for several years. Instead, City College prioritized the construction of the new Multi-Use Building (MUB).

The MUB was finished in 2012 and cost $77 million.

Since 2000, when the initial planning for the performing arts center began, San Francisco voters have passed three propositions to fund new CCSF construction. These propositions in 2000, 2005 and 2020, all called Proposition A, authorized nearly $1.3 billion combined in bond funds for City College.

Still, Mueller points to the delays her department has endured over the last 20 years as tantamount to ignoring the will of the voters.

“Three times the voters of San Francisco have put up major funding for this project,” Mueller said. “They said: Do it.”

But City College hindered its progress, Mueller claims.

In 2012, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior College (ACCJC) produced a “show-cause” order against CCSF, accusing the college of poor financial management. A show-cause order is a warning that a college is in danger of losing its accreditation unless it changes its practices. City College had to make immediate budget cuts.

In a February 2013 interview with The Guardsman, interim chancellor Thelma Scott-Skillman announced that she asked the board not to move forward with constructing the new performing arts center.

Then, in September 2013, special trustee Robert Agrella officially announced that the project would not break ground.

“The college has no means to fund this excess cost,” Agrella said in an open letter to the college.

An older woman wearing glasses and a pink coat smiles as she leans on a grand piano
Music department chair Madeline Mueller poses for a portrait at the City College of San Francisco on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Mueller felt like Charlie Brown once again.

“Madeline wasn’t happy about it, but there was nothing she could do,” said Brown, who is also the co-chair of the Facilities Committee.

Adding to the frustration, Folsom Lake College, another California community college campus, received what Carlson deemed as “an exact replica of the design” that was meant for CCSF. Folsom’s performing arts theater was completed in 2011 before Agrella announced that CCSF’s project would be delayed.

“This was personal,” Carlson said. “This was a thumb in Madeline’s eye by administrators at the state level.”

The delay had a financial cost, too.

City College had to forfeit $22 million in matching funds from the state that it had planned to use in the construction of the performing arts theater.

In 2017, the ACCJC reaffirmed City College’s accreditation status, restoring some stability to the struggling school. Mueller, who had spent the last four years fighting against budget cuts in the music department, once again started to think about a new performing arts theater.

“We’re clawing back,” she said. “We’ve got our band back, we’ve got our choir back, and we’re desperately nagging them to get my orchestra back.”

For the first time in years, she’s cautiously optimistic about the future of the performing arts center. In late December, plans for it went before California’s Division of the State Architect, a key part of the approval process.

“It’s the first time we’ve had all our ducks in a row,” Mueller said.

Talks to build the new theater were restarted in 2020, according to Mueller, the same year San Francisco voters approved Proposition A, an $845 million bond measure for City College. In 2021, the City College board approved a new design for the Performing Arts Center. Two years later, the architects for the new building, LMN Architects and TEF Design, were officially announced.

There was one change to the design: a large glass lobby to hold Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity mural, one of City College’s crown jewels.

“That was the component we never thought of,” Mueller said. “It did raise the cost, but it will preserve the iconic mural.”

With so many projects on her plate, it’s hard to imagine Mueller retiring any time soon.

For most of her career, her promise to bow out once the performing arts center was complete was an empty threat. Now, that time may come, after all.

“I’ll play it by ear,” she said.


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