Edna Dee Woolford Saunders, impresario and musician, daughter of John Dunnock and Ianthe (Dealy) Woolford, was born on August 31, 1880, in Houston, Texas. Her father was the mayor of Houston from 1900 to 1902. Edna graduated from Houston High School in 1898 and continued her education at the Stuart School in Washington, D. C., and the Gardner School in New York City where she studied music. On February 24, 1902, Edna Woolford married Benjamin Earnest Saunders, but they later divorced. They had no children.
Although Saunders had extensive training in piano and voice, she chose not to pursue a career on the concert stage. As an officer of the Woman’s Choral Club, a music club organized in 1901 to advance music appreciation in Houston, she assumed responsibility for finding touring artists to present concerts. She served as president of the club from 1913 to 1917. In 1917 she brought the Boston Opera Company to Houston to present excerpts from Madame Butterfly with dancer Anna Pavlova as the second act. When she was asked in 1918 to book events for Houston’s City Auditorium, Edna Saunders embarked on a career that would place her at the center of the city’s cultural affairs for the next forty-five years.
In 1920 Saunders brought Italian tenor Enrico Caruso to Houston. The City Auditorium was packed to capacity while hundreds crowded on the sidewalks outside to listen. Operating under the name “Edna W. Saunders Presents,” she introduced to Houston audiences internationally-known artists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Jascha Heifetz, Artur [Arthur] Rubinstein, Amelita Galli-Curci, Fritz Kreisler, and Marian Anderson. Among the symphonic ensembles Saunders presented were the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. During the 1930s the acclaimed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo appeared regularly in Houston during the Christmas season. Houston audiences’ interest in ballet was enhanced through performances by Chicago Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, Royal Ballet, and Mexico’s Ballet Folklorico. Two of the most acclaimed ballerinas in the twentieth century, Moira Shearer and Margot Fonteyn, appeared under “Edna W. Saunders Presents.” For Marian Anderson’s first concert, Saunders initiated the unprecedented action of securing city approval to divide the main floor of Houston’s City Auditorium to seat blacks on one side and whites on the other (rather than restrict African American ticket holders to the traditional “blacks only” section in the balcony). During the black contralto’s performance, Saunders and the Houston mayor sat with civic leaders of the African American community on the “black” side of the main floor.
Saunders traveled to the North and East each year to book upcoming events. To offset low revenues from more classical programming, she presented popular performers such as Will Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, and John Philip Sousa’s Band. The most expensive productions she staged were those of the Metropolitan Opera Company, which brought not only their stars but also the company’s orchestra, ballet dancers, and technical staff. She had financial guarantors standing in the wings ready to assist if they were needed for these productions, but she almost never had to rely on them. Saunders’s business acumen was recognized in 1927 when she was chosen by the Woman’s Advertising Club for their Torchbearer Award, given annually to the city’s most eminent woman. In addition to Houston, she also maintained offices in Beaumont and Galveston.
Saunders was an active leader in civic affairs and held life memberships in the Kiwanis Club and Salesmanship Club. She was a board member for the Alley Theatre and the Houston Foundation for Ballet. She served as president of Milford House and was a longtime member of the First Presbyterian Church. In August 1941 she married Edward William Cox; he died in 1943. Although Edna Saunders was married twice during her lifetime, she preferred to operate alone in her business. In 1953 Kurt Weinhold of Columbia Artists Management, Inc., referred to her as the “pioneer impresario of the Southwest and the leading manager of Texas” and characterized her tenure as the “longest career as a local impresario of any woman in the United States.”
Despite suffering a heart attack in 1962, Saunders planned one more season. Death came on December 21, 1963, even as newspapers carried an ad for two of her upcoming events. Just a week earlier Edna Saunders had been named honorary vice president of the International Concert Managers Association with the association’s president calling Saunders the “first lady” of local concert managers. Ground was broken the month after her death for the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts. John T. Jones, Jr., of the Houston Endowment, Inc., which contributed major funds to the project, dedicated the hall’s public reception area, the Green Room, to Edna Saunders “to honor the woman who for half a century reigned as an Empress of the Arts and whose influence had much to do with the city’s cultural momentum.” A portrait of Edna W. Saunders hangs in the Green Room of Jones Hall. She is buried in Houston’s Glenwood Cemetery.