SOUL OF THE CITY VIII: Taking stock of VenueTech

DOWNEY - Has VenueTech made a good fit with the City of Downey? Hired in 2010 to manage and program the Downey Civic Theater, which up until then was dark for a large part of the year, has the operation, under project manager Judy Barkett and daily manager Amber Vogel, created enough of a local draw to nudge Downey into a mainstream mix of cultural attractions?

The answer is yes and no. If that's no answer at all, and it isn't, it's because of complications that have made success a tougher nut than anyone thought. If you've missed earlier episodes, as they say in TV, here's a recap:

On May 3rd, 2010, Thad Phillips, then head of Downey's Community Services Department, hosted a meeting for bidders to manage the Downey Theater, whose long-time manager, Kevin O'Connor, had retired a year earlier. Ten people showed up. After a tour of the plant, including its backstage area large enough to hangar an airplane, its light booth and downstairs costume and storage areas, Phillips explained the city's concern-dilemma might be a better word-about what to do with the theater, which cost $470,000 year to operate while recouping less than half that amount in $225,000. By now, the city was in the vise-like grip of the '09 recession. Painful layoffs and cutbacks were beginning. The city leaders understood that the theater could never be a moneymaker, but they wanted more bang for the buck.

Phillips also explained that the city viewed the theater as key to its larger downtown recovery and development plan. However, "The current rentals aren't attracting. Whoever comes in must understand the community."

Questions followed from the bidders, in which it became startlingly clear that not only did Phillips know nothing about running a theater, but that he was virtually willing to sell this one out. Yes, he answered, the traditional renters, which included the Downey Civic Light Opera, the Downey Symphony, the Rose Float Association and the Downey Unified School District, were "bumpable" when it came to scheduling.

"I don't think there's anything that says we have to rent to them at all." (This is the figure who was put in charge of the Art in Public Places program, and proceeded to sabotage it before declaring it unworkable.)

A soft-spoken, somewhat portly man sporting a grizzled beard asked the most pointed questions. He seemed the most serious and intent in the group. After the meeting he said to me, "The city doesn't reach out to the community that much, which means the city isn't answerable to the community. It's almost as if they want to give it [the theater] away."

The man was John Lind, president of a management and consulting firm called VenueTech, which is based in northern California and runs theaters in Campbell, San Ramon, Eureka and Vacaville (they've since added others out of state). If the city of Downey effectively wanted to give the theater away (though of course it didn't), it had a willing and able taker. VenueTech won the contract, and with it what appears a nice payout: a scaled up $15,215 per month management fee (as of July 1, 2013); a labor reimbursement for direct costs plus 30% overhead; a research reimbursement currently amounting to $882 per month; a one-time transition cost of $14,700; and a wind-down contractual fee of $7,166 a month-these last in addition to the management bill.

I don't know if this is a standard deal or a sweet one. Downey's surrounding area theaters in La Mirada, Cerritos, and Long Beach (the Carpenter Center) are in the 1200 seat range-the Downey Theater seats 738-and though it has its own business manager, the similarly-sized Mark Taper Forum is folded into the Center Theater Group umbrella that includes the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters.

There have been moments when it's appeared that VenueTech has earned every penny, at least in the eyes of VenueTech. At an open hearing on the floor of the city council, Lind gamely and inscrutably withstood questioning from some arts community old-timers that bordered on scorn. Barkett has endured a bit of the same thing, from one group that doesn't understand exactly what a management firm does, and a querulous tone from another that assumes VenueTech is here to provide artistic leadership desperately needed by the city. It isn't, and the city is happy.

"We're more than satisfied with what VenueTech is doing," said councilman Roger Brossmer at a recent theater committee meeting.

Still, you have to wonder: How well has it located the pulse of Downey, which is now 71% Hispanic, with a 40% population under the age of 24? How creative is its programming? How much longer is it willing to attach its reputation and liability (though indemnified by the city) to a 43-year-old theater that's not only in serious need of a facelift, but in a couple of instances has proven a hazard?

Sally Bell, stage manager for the Downey Civic Light Opera for 26 years, thinks the DCLO closed at the right time.

"It was becoming more difficult to do scenery and lights," she says. "We were used to a more professional crew than the one VenueTech brought in. The equipment has not been good. One night a bolt fell out of one of the arbors [a counterweight for the raising of scenery and curtains] and the curtain fell. Someone could've been seriously injured. Brakes and pulleys should be periodically inspected. They aren't. Follow spots are in such poor shape that we couldn't use them for our last show. The crew was not up to handling sound requirements. The lighting engineer was missing light cues."

Bell thinks that a blown light cue was one reason that Henry Silva fell into the orchestra pit at the end of the February concert of Los Lonely Boys, injuring himself badly enough to interrupt his touring schedule for months. Another reason was that no safety cover had been fastened over the pit-which is supposed to be a requirement. Asked about equipment malfunction and wear, and the faulty sinks in the theater's toilets, Barkett pointed out that the city is responsible for maintenance and repair.

The city's 2012-13 theater budget allocates $66,900 for those purposes. With that amount of money on hand, can't they fix a sink?

No response yet from Los Lonely Boys' management about a lawsuit, except that they've reportedly asked for pictures of the Downey Theater stage and orchestra pit. It's probably just a matter of time before one is filed.

VenueTech has soldiered bravely on as it faces the dilemma of entering the brutally competitive market of the entertainment capitol of the world, with L.A.'s Music Center 20 minutes away, the South Coast Repertory and the Segerstrom Performing Arts Center not much longer; Long Beach, with its night life and its own theaters and concert hall, even closer, along with the La Mirada Civic and the Cerritos Performing Arts Center. Three of the cities VenueTech has operated in have populations of under 35,000 (Downey's is 112,584, as of 2011). Sometimes it's scored big, by booking headliners like Arturo Sandoval and, upcoming, Al Jarreau. It's tried variety, as in the National Circus of the People's Republic of China from Beijing, and Dance Brazil. It's filled the theater with community dance and performance groups, and beauty pageants, often with greater numbers than its professional shows. However, many of its presentations still play to half-empty houses, and if Yelp commentary is any guide, its nonrefundable tickets are pricey, particularly for non-commercial events.

It's important to remember that VenueTech was hired principally to manage the theater. But when it comes to bookings, it looks like the firm still hasn't unlocked Downey to where the theater becomes a prime weekend option, like the Krikorian or, for young people, late night at the Epic Lounge (when they're not flocking to Pine Avenue in Long Beach). Vogel has been an obliging and dutiful figure, willing to address groups like Kiwanis and the Chamber of Commerce and anyone who shows up at the former Johny's Broiler to hear news of the VenueTech's effort. But these groups, and the patrons she chats with at the theater, tend to be made up of the same kinds of people. Vogel's first move on relocating to the southland was to Seal Beach. Nothing wrong with that. Who wouldn't want to live at the beach? But that precludes hanging out locally, milling, appearing to waste time while sussing out a vox populi that doesn't mention the Downey Theater in its conversation, and asking why.

It's too soon to wonder whether VenueTech's thought about Downey is evolving. The irony is, that if asked, it could do more. The company is expert at theater restoration. The Arkley Center in Eureka and the Heritage theater in Campbell are magnificent. Lind managed San Francisco's Candlestick Park during the 1989 World Series, when the city was hit with an earthquake. His master's degree is in art and the growth of small communities. With his scope and his interests and experience, wouldn't he be a perfect consultant for Downey's artistic needs at the moment?

He's not offering and the city's not asking. They made their deal and everyone seems happy with it.

********** Published: Aug. 15, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 18