If one were to catalog the secrets of Roger Horchow’s success, number one would be his ability to divine what American consumers really want, before they even know they want it. In the seventies and eighties Horchow, a longtime Dallasite, used this near-psychic power to launch the Horchow Collection, an upscale catalog whose tempting frocks and fripperies made it the first luxury mail-order business ever to succeed on its own, without a retail outlet. In the nineties Horchow did it again, albeit in a whole new field: A lifelong fan of musical comedy, he gambled that others would also enjoy long-neglected classics of the genre. The result: He produced two Tony award-winning Broadway shows—Crazy for You and Kiss Me, Kate—and introduced a whole new generation to the inimitable songs of George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter.In 1988 he sold his seventeen-year-old catalog empire to the Neiman Marcus Group, the holding company for the elegant emporium that was his biggest rival (and former employer). The price was a robust $119 million, so he decided to risk some of the proceeds on a revival of his favorite musical comedy, the Gershwins’ 1930 hit, Girl Crazy. The decision wasn’t an impulsive one; Horchow, who is now 72, once met George Gershwin. He loves to recount the incident: “I don’t really remember it, but I was told the story often enough that I feel like I do. My mother was a concert pianist, and I loved hearing her play. One time when I was four and a half or five, Gershwin was in town—we lived in Cincinnati then—and somehow Mother persuaded him to come over to our house. I was upstairs in bed when he agreed to play, and I came down to investigate. I’ve been a fan ever since.” The new Girl Crazy, retitled Crazy for You, debuted in 1992 and won Gershwin a zillion new fans with such songs as “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.” It racked up 1,643 performances and three Tony awards.
“After Crazy for You I said I’d never ever do another musical,” Horchow recalls. But within a year, he was in the first stages of revamping another crowd pleaser, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate—which, in turn, is a revamping of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. (During his college years at Yale—to which he has donated more than $5 million—the then-strapped Horchow fed his musical-comedy addiction with $1 balcony tickets at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre.) Last year his updated Kate also opened to raves, and this summer it too garnered Tonys—five of them, including one for best revival of a musical.
Today Horchow is focusing on a return to merchandising. He is the chairman of the new Internet company GoodHome.com, a home-decor site that lets online shoppers mix and match furnishings. Still based in Dallas, where he moved in 1960 with his bride, Carolyn, he works in an office crammed with Gershwin memorabilia, including sheet music for hundreds of the brothers’ songs. Some of the titles could have been written about Horchow’s own life: “ ‘S Wonderful,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”