Talking Shop with Bob Cerchio, assistant director of the River Campus

Monday, April 4, 2011
Robert Cerchio is assistant director of the Holland School of Visual and Performing Arts at Southeast Missouri State University's River Campus. (Fred Lynch)

When Bob Cerchio was 15 the guy who had the locker next to him in junior high asked him if he wanted to work "on the stage." He's been there ever since.

Cerchio, assistant director of Southeast Missouri State University's bustling River Campus, is Southeast's Mr. Entertainment -- the guy responsible for bringing to town everyone from blues legend B.B. King to the zany "Spamalot."

The 1975 graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale spent more than a quarter century in charge of SIU's Shryock Auditorium. He took the job at Southeast in 2006, and is responsible for all physical, logistical, and scheduling functions at Southeast's River Campus, overseeing the operational functions in three venues of more than 90 performances per year. In addition, Cerchio programs the campus' annual touring series, booking eight to 10 major touring attractions annually into the 951-seat Bedell Performance Hall.

Question: How did you get started in the entertainment planning business?

Answer: I worked theater productions all through junior and senior high school, even helping to found an amateur theater company. Although I was primarily a stage technician, I did everything from acting to box office to program printing (my dad was a printer). After three years in the military, I went to college -- majoring in Television Production. I was convinced there just weren't enough good jobs in Theater. Then, in graduate school I was offered a job at the university's performing arts center. I never looked back.

Q: How has the business changed over the course of your professional career?

A: I'm what is called an "accidental administrator." Even though I had worked many years in the business, I never formally studied to do what I do today. That's not so easy anymore. Now there are courses of study for the administrative side of the arts, even specific MBA programs. Southeast is even kicking off its own arts entrepreneurship minor in the fall of 2011. Because of this, arts or entertainment employers are looking for people with art administration degrees. Not so many accidental administrators today.

Fine arts now is much more a business than it was when I started 35 years ago. Not that it hasn't always been a business, but the bottom line has become the dominant decision-making influence, sometimes overriding artistic considerations. Symphonies, ballet companies and even children's theater companies have all borrowed from the commercial entertainment bag of tricks. Things that you used to see only in rock 'n' roll contracts have found their way into organizations from The Acting Company to the Boridin Trio. It has taken a bit of the fun out of it.

Q: Is it more challenging today than when you started?

A: Yes and no. Of course, when I started I had a lot to learn, and I made mistakes. So it was tremendously challenging. But like any new job, you learn -- sometimes the hard way. My first year on my own I booked two things on the same date. I had to charter a plane to get the string trio, who moved their date, to their next performance. Not my best moment. But I learned even from that. I learned that people -- even the best people -- make mistakes. So when someone messes up, I have the patience to work through the situation, fix it and then help the employee do better the next time. But nowadays I've pretty much seen it all. Coming to Southeast with thirty years experience, I was actually surprised how easy it was. Knowledge and experience are wonderful things. Getting to that point is the struggle.

Q: What is it about this business that has kept you coming back year after year?

A: Love. Sorry, I'm not trying to be sappy about this, but there is no better way to say it. I love what I do and consider myself lucky to be able to work in a field I love. I tell this to students all the time. If they choose a career they love and put their heart and soul into it they will succeed. And, in the process, they'll be happy! I have known people who chose their career based solely on how much money they'd make. Then they spent the rest of their lives being miserable eight hours a day. Not for me. This job has so much variety. No one day is the same as another. I don't think I've ever spent eight straight hours sitting at my desk. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of administrative work. But even within arts administration, my day is constantly changing, moving through booking, negotiation, contracts, budgets, scheduling, facilities, personnel and on and on, right down to what color the drapes should be in the Shuck Recital Hall. (By the way, I let the architect pick the color. I know my limitations.)

Q: What are some of the more interesting touring acts you've dealt with in your career?

A: How many columns do you have? There are a lot of stories to tell. To me, the most interesting days are the most challenging. I love it when something goes wrong; it's something new -- a different challenge. Of course there are limits. But when you meet the challenge and succeed despite of it, it is exhilarating. A few examples: The famous mime Marcel Marceau was scheduled for an 8 p.m. performance. His management -- one of the most respected in the business -- had given us a tech rider but had not advanced the date with us. But we weren't too worried. ("Advancing" the date means calling a week or two out to discuss all the fine points. There are two advances, usually, one with the tech people and one with management.) It was a simple show, and we thought he'd just be there when his rider stated, around 4 to 5 p.m. This was before there were cell phones and the New York offices were closed when he wasn't there at 5, then 6, then 7. I'm in the lobby, greeting the audience of a sold-out show, with a smile on my face while I'm worried sick he isn't going to make it. At 8:05 p.m., just as I was going on stage to announce a delay, he and his road manager came huffing and puffing through the stage door. They hadn't used the route we provided, had stopped to buy peaches at a roadside stand, got caught waiting for a freight train, and Marceau, who was driving, was pulled over for a speeding ticket. Then he tells us it will take him 45 minutes to get into makeup. I had to announce this to the audience who took it pretty well and waited patiently. After receiving a standing ovation he refused to meet with fans, got in his car and drove back to St. Louis. Needless to say, I never booked him again.

We had booked a touring company of the Broadway musical "Oliver." Their tech truck, which left the previous venue about 1 a.m. after loading-out, was there for the 8 a.m. load-in. But the performers, as is the norm, left just after breakfast to be at the hotel by 4 p.m. and the theater by 5:30 or 6. Well, the performers' bus broke down. Of course, no cell phones, so by the time the company manager was able to get off the interstate to a telephone it was too late to send a university bus. They ended up getting help from a local church who "loaned" them their bus and driver. But it was going to be tight. I called the university caterer who prepared 50 sandwiches, drinks and cookies. When the bus pulled up 10 minutes before curtain, the actors were already in costume and makeup (I can't imagine putting on makeup in a moving bus). As they charged into the building, we handed them food. They hadn't eaten since breakfast. The show started 10 minutes late.

Of course, there are the "stars." Sometimes they're really good to work with, sometimes not so much. I think the Marcel Marceau incident was the worst example of what I call "being Podunk-ed." That is, being treated as if, just because we're in a rural locale, we're a bunch of hicks. But that doesn't happen too often. Ray Charles was wonderfully warm and generous, just a nice man. B.B. King loved to talk about music and was also warm and friendly. When Count Basie came to play, he was quite old and used a scooter. We didn't have a ramp long enough to get him up to the loading dock so we put a platform in front of the dock and a ramp from the ground to the platform. He zipped up and onto the platform. Then the crew moved the ramp from the platform to the dock and he zipped up to stage level. He laughed as he did this and said, "Only at a university!" I remember Cloris Leachman as an immensely beautiful person when she performed as "Grandma Moses." Loretta Swit was fine but definitely high maintenance. She had forgotten to bring her costume, and we had to come up with a white dress just minutes before curtain. I don't think Arlo Guthrie put his guitar down either on stage or off. He was always fiddling with the strings even when he talked. He told me loved to play so much he'd do any gig for a thousand bucks (less than 1/10 his fee at the time). I wish he had told his agent. The Smothers Brothers were very professional and polite offstage and hysterical in the show. True pros. And there are so many others: Joan Baez, Neal E. Boyd, Carol Channing, Judy Collins, Daniel Heifetz, Hal Holbrook, Ice-T, Garrison Keillor, Corky Siegel, William Windom and more. Most are wonderful people and a joy to be around.

Q: How has the River Campus changed the dynamic of entertainment on campus and in the community?

A: The River Campus has brought to Southeast Missouri a place where the creativity, excitement and spectacle of the arts can thrive. It's the Cape Canaveral of our arts programs. Beyond the metaphor, people should understand that before we had the River Campus, the arts were here and there around the Southeast campus. Performances were in aging and barely adequate facilities. Art was one place, theatre/dance in another and music a third. There were collaborations (an annual musical, for example) but not a lot. At the River Campus the creative energy of all the arts is in one place. This year's Spring into Dance concert will feature a piece danced by theatre/dance students, with live music by the Department of Music's Wind Symphony, and sets by the Art Department's sculptor Chris Wubbena. This wouldn't have happened in our old digs. In addition, when you invest in new facilities, your potential students takes notice. Our programs are seeing an increase not only in number of majors, but also in the quality of students we attract. This translates into better, more dynamic and exciting exhibits and performances. Add to this the quality of the touring shows we're bringing in -- both in the visual and performing arts -- and there is more to see and do in Cape Girardeau than ever before. Before we built the River Campus, you would have to drive to St. Louis to see these kind of events. Now, the very same touring companies are right here. That bears repeating. You are seeing the exact same companies that perform in major cities throughout the United States. And yet, you are seeing them in a smaller, more intimate setting. You could fit about three Bedell Performance Halls in the Carson Center [in Paducah, Ky.], four in the Fox [Theater in St. Louis]. The Rust Flexible Theatre seats an intimate 190. And the Shuck Music Recital Hall ranks with the finest chamber halls in the world. This combination of facilities, students and events is something the people of the region should be proud of.

Q: What do you think of the concept, proposed by university president Dr. Ken Dobbins, of a hotel on the River Campus, serving the residential needs of the growing visual and performing arts majors?

A: The concept is exciting. Two very different programs collaborating in a single enterprise. Kind of like the current River Campus philosophy: Bringing different things together. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds. Hopefully it'll be peanut butter and chocolate.

Q: What's the future of arts and entertainment, at the university and in Southeast Missouri?

A: Right now the River Campus is pretty much booked solid, at least for the nine-month academic year. People often forget that all locally-produced performances have rehearsals, which can eat up time. So, with a lot of music ensembles and theatre/dance performances, there's not much unused time. But we are looking at the possibility of summer activities. With such programs being only in the very initial talking stages, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further. But it would be nice to have programming during the summer. Again, it will be interesting to see what unfolds.

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