Of Paramount importance: JPJ's manager takes over theater
While the Paramount Theater has had no trouble attracting notable national talent to its stage since its re-opening in 2005, the Paramount board has had a hard time attracting a permanent executive director. Following a tenure that brought crooner Tony Bennett, violinist Itzahk Perlman, comedian Bill Cosby, and $16 million in funds to the theater, president and CEO Chad Hershner resigned abruptly and without explanation in October 2006.
Ten months later, a national search identified Edward Rucker, a Charlottesville resident since 1988 and president and CEO of the Richmond Forum– an ongoing speakers' series that charged rock-concert prices for Richmonders to hear visiting dignitaries. Rucker's tenure saw continued booking success for the venue, with shows from the likes of Dionne Warwick, Judy Collins, and Peter Frampton. And yet, in May 2008, the Paramount once again had to announce a mysterious resignation by their top man, stating in a press release that Rucker had left "to pursue other opportunities," though at the time Rucker could not say specifically what that next opportunity was.
Now, instead of conducting yet another national search for a director, the Paramount board has enlisted the aid of a local entertainment industry heavyweight. No, Coran Capshaw has not added the renovated movie house to his empire. The Paramount is looking to Larry Wilson, general manager of the John Paul Jones Arena, and his company, SMG Facility Management, to take over.
"I'm doing pretty much everything," says Wilson. "We're under an exploratory, 90-day consulting agreement. Then if that goes well, we'll work with the board of directors to reach a more permanent agreement."
That means Wilson is presently doing double duty as JPJ's GM and as the Paramount's acting GM. According to Paramount spokesperson Kristin Gleason, the Paramount gig is no afterthought for Wilson.
"He's typically here few days every week," she says. "He's really tailored his services to fit the venue."
"It's been great," says Wilson. "Working with the board has been fantastic, and hopefully we'll be able to reach an agreement soon. If that happens, SMG will appoint someone to be general manager, and that person would report to me."
Should that eventuality materialize, it would pit SMG's Paramount against Coran Capshaw's Charlottesville Pavilion in competition for the downtown concert dollar. Already, the two venues' scheduled shows have overlapping appeal. Are you a baby boomer who's still digging the sounds of the '60s? The Pavilion has Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty, but the Parmount has the Band's Levon Helm.
More into classic southern blues and R&B? The Pavilion has a show with Memphis guitar hero B.B. King, but the Paramount just announced New Orleans piano man Allen Toussaint. Rhinestone-studded country more your style? The Pavilion booked Kenny "The Gambler" Rogers, but the Paramount has a double bill with twangy-spangly Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart.
Given the high ticket prices at both venues, and the declining economy driving consumer costs skyward, it may be that Charlottesville concert-goers choose one or the other and not both– (if either!).
Pavilion GM Kirby Hutto remains unfazed in describing his venue's relationship with the Paramount.
"I don't think it means anything for the Pavilion," he says. "The two venues are so radically different in terms of the type of experience you're going to have. The Paramount's not big enough to be going after the same artists, but I think the new shows may show that SMG has a pretty good handle on the market."
Moreover, Hutto says he's confident that local music fans won't have to pick and choose which shows to attend. However, if the Pavilion loses some business to the Paramount, Hutto has his sights set on a much larger geographic scale.
"We're drawing a lot of people from outside Charlottesville," he says. "People are coming from over in the Valley and the outer reaches of Northern Virginia like Gainesville and Warrenton. People come down from there all the time; they say it's easier to come to the Pavilion than to go to Wolf Trap or Meriwether Post Pavilion because they don't have to fight the traffic."
Then there's Capshaw's and Hutto's plans for the downtown Jefferson Theater, which Capshaw purchased from Hook editor Hawes Spencer in 2006 with the goal of converting it into a concert venue.
"We plan to have it open in about 14 months," says Hutto. "That will hit a different niche than the Pavilion or the Paramount– more of a smaller rock 'n roll type theater that's not quite as formal as the Paramount
and appealing to a younger demographic than either the Paramount or the Pavilion."
According to Chuck Taylor, programming director of WTJU and longtime veteran Charlottesville music wag, regardless of how the competition between the Paramount and the Pavilion goes, the bigger problem is the flagging economy affecting both venues.
"In this current situation, when everyone's watching their dimes, people just don't go out as much," Taylor says. "I would hate to be running a venue right now. It's pretty scary in this market."
Ultimately, Taylor thinks that means that both the Paramount and the Pavilion will book increasingly older acts to appeal to people with the money to spend on tickets.
"There's a growing retiree population in Charlottesville," he says, "and you'll continue to see both venues skew to that."
It could take a few years to determine how the gig grab goes, particularly since SMG has yet to book an entire season of shows at the Paramount. But at this point Hutto says the Paramount's new management doesn't scare him.
"I'm more concerned with gas prices," says Hutto, "than I am with what's on the Pavilion's calendar."