Addition to theater is topic for River Campus

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Don't build it too small.

Southeast Missouri State University officials are hearing that message from a St. Louis area concert promoter who says the school needs more than a 950-seat performance hall on its River Campus if it wants to attract top-flight shows at ticket prices the public will pay.

The board of regents is considering adding perhaps as many as 450 seats to the current design, a move which could cost an extra $4.5 million or $10,000 for every added seat.

"In my personal opinion, we can do 1,500 seats," Don Dickerson, board president, said Tuesday.

Dickerson suggested the university could get the added money by issuing bonds, securing more private donations or through added state or federal funding.

But some regents worry that the university doesn't have the money to build a bigger theater.

"What money we do have needs to go to education," said regent Edward Matthews III of Sikeston, Mo.

Regent John Tlapek of Cape Girardeau questions whether there are enough area residents interested in the arts to fill up even a 1,000-seat theater.

Tlapek suggested the university needs to survey the public to determine the level of interest.

But concert promoter and consultant Steve Litman said such surveys mean little. "Until somebody builds a facility, people don't necessarily know they want it," he said.

Dickerson said the regents need to make a decision by late September so that construction plans can be drawn up. The university anticipates beginning construction on the River Campus arts school next spring.

The arts school, on the grounds of a former Catholic seminary overlooking the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau, will include a new performance hall, a recital hall, a university museum, faculty offices and art, music and dance classrooms.

Litman, who serves as executive producer for all concert events at the historic Fox Theatre in St. Louis, advised the board of regents last week that the new River Campus performance hall needs at least 1,200 seats and optimally as many as 1,500 seats.

"If you don't build the seating capacity, you're never going to have the home run," Litman said of top-notch shows.

Dickerson agrees. "If we don't have the capacity, our quality of programming will go down," he said.

Litman said it is important for Southeast to include sufficient seating in Bedell Performance Hall to cover the cost of bringing in name-brand entertainment. Entertainers can command a guarantee of $20,000 to $40,000 a show.

But costs will continue to escalate, he said. "The show that is $30,000 this year will be $40,000 in three years," Litman said.

A new 1,806-seat performance hall opened in Paducah, Ky., in late February. Since then, it has sold out several times. "Every one of the Broadway shows was completely sold out," said Jeff Foreman, director of operations at the Luther F. Carson Four Rivers Center, which overlooks the Ohio River.

"You need about 1,400 seats at least to have a Broadway show," he said. Such seating would help keep ticket prices for a major show in the $30 to $50 range, Foreman said.

The Paducah center also rents its facility to outside promoters to bring in shows. Foreman said outside promoters wouldn't consider such an arrangement for a 900-seat theater because it wouldn't be profitable for them.

Even with the new River Campus theater, popular country and rock 'n' roll bands will continue to perform at the Show Me Center, which can seat over 7,000 for some concerts.

A small theater can't generate the revenue needed to pay such entertainers and cover the production costs, Show Me Center director David Ross said.

The River Campus performance hall will be better suited, however, for theatrical shows, ballets and classical music, Ross said.

Unlike the Show Me Center, the River Campus facility will have a permanent stage that will better handle the scenery that accompanies traveling theatrical shows, he said.

The Show Me Center, however, has played host to some theatrical shows. The Moscow Ballet production of the "Nutcracker" drew nearly 1,700 people to a performance last November.

The Broadway musical "Cats" drew an audience of nearly 3,000 for a performance at the Show Me Center on April 23.

Regent Brad Bedell of Sikeston said construction of a smaller performance hall at the River Campus would mean the university would have to charge higher ticket prices to break even on Broadway shows. Some people then couldn't afford to attend, he said.

"We don't need to be shortsighted over a couple million bucks."

The planned performance hall is named for Bedell's father, Sikeston businessman Don Bedell, who has donated over $1 million to the project.

But Matthews is reluctant to expand the $36 million River Campus project. "To me that is a risk when you don't have the money in the bank," he said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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