The upcoming theater series at Tivoli could usher in a new season for the community [photos]

A major update of the historic Tivoli Theatre is envisioned once funding exists.

Broadway at the Tivoli Theatre

The Tivoli Theatre recently announced its inaugural Broadway at the Tivoli lineup featuring some well-known and popular musical theater productions. The 2016-2017 season includes classic favorites and modern shows alike. Dirty Dancing(Jan. 17-18, 2017)Enjoy heart-pounding music, passionate romance and sensational dancing to hit songs Hungry Eyes, Hey Baby, Do You Love Me? and (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.Chicago(Feb. 15-17, 2017)One of the longest-running American musicals, Chicago is the winner of six 1997 Tony Awards including Best Musical Revival and the Grammy Award for Best Musical Cast Recording. Set amidst the razzle-dazzle decadence of the 1920s, Chicago is the story of Roxie Hart, a housewife and nightclub dancer who maliciously murders her on-the-side lover after he threatens to walk out on her.Rent(March 8-9, 2017)A reimagining of Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent follows an unforgettable year in the lives of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams without selling out. With its inspiring message of joy and hope in the face of fear, this Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning celebration of friendship and creativity reminds us to measure our lives with the only thing that truly matters — love.Riverdance(April 18-20, 2017)Drawing on Irish traditions, the combined talents of the performers propel Irish dancing and music into the present day, capturing the imagination of audiences across all ages and cultures in an innovative and exciting blend of dance, music and song.Annie(May 2-3, 2017)Closing out the season, this family classic musical features book and score by Tony Award winners Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.

It's known as the "Jewel of the South."

From silent film showings in its early days to dance recitals, symphony concerts, local theater productions and charity events in more recent years, the Tivoli Theatre has been a gathering place for the arts community since the marquee lit up for the first time in 1921.

Although the theater is a cornerstone in Chattanooga's history, it has deteriorated from its original 1920's grandeur. Several years ago, it was estimated that the Tivoli would need at least $4 million to $6 million in physical improvements to correct issues from crumbling plaster work to carpeting held together with strips of duct tape, as well as improvements to correct outdated areas in the theater.

Such maintenance and renovation was a near impossibility with the Tivoli and Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium costing the city $1.5 million annually while only generating $750,000 in combined revenue.

But the physical aspects of the venues weren't the only things that needed a change, officials said.


Turning Over A New Leaf

In an effort to breathe new life into these spaces, last year Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke created a nonprofit organization called the Tivoli Theatre Foundation made up of local executives and artists, and contracted with Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, a company probably best-known as co-founder of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. While the city still retains ownership of the venues, the two organizations are charged with fundraising, programming and management of the facilities.

The goal was to make necessary repairs and renovations - and bring more programming to the venues, including a greater variety of touring musicians and performers, says AC Entertainment Vice President of Concerts Ted Heinig.

"Dave Holscher [general manager of the Tivoli] and his team are working to transform those buildings into a must-play in the touring world," Heinig says. "In a year or two from now, the theater will have a high enough profile within the industry that it'll be on the radar in a different way."

The Tivoli has been the lead venue in terms of the programming AC Entertainment has been putting into place, and so far, Holscher says the company feels successful in its efforts there.

"We're looking to really get the attention of the patrons so they are anxious to see what happens next, but make sure we prove through ticket sales to the agents and other management that Chattanooga is a place they want to make sure to include in their routing [for touring groups]," he says. "I think that we've been very successful in establishing that. I think we'll probably double the amount of concert events we did the second year than we did the first year."

The efforts are modeled after Knoxville's Tennessee Theatre, a nonprofit venue which, according to a release, was booked more than 280 days in the 2015 calendar year. At the time of the release, the Tivoli and Memorial Auditorium were only operating at a combined 30 percent usage rate. While the Tennessee Theatre generated $4.3 million in 2013, together they brought in $750,000 in revenue in 2014.

One way AC Entertainment is moving forward with the goal of making the Tivoli and Memorial Auditorium financially sustainable is the addition of a Broadway series which includes a five-show season lineup with some major titles.

"Part of our philosophy is to include programming for everyone, and Broadway really stretches the demographic and allows people to bring something to the mix that isn't live music or comedy," says Heinig. "We're trying to build something, and we're building it from the ground up. In doing so, we chose titles that we felt Chattanooga would be excited about, and a wide range of options for everyone."

The Broadway programming includes Dirty Dancing, Chicago, the 20th anniversary tour of Rent, the 20th anniversary tour of Riverdance and family classic Annie. Subscriptions to the series went on sale at the end of August, and have surpassed AC Entertainment's expectations for sales.

"We had a lobby full of people on the day they went on sale. It was impressive to see. The line never stopped throughout that whole first day," Heinig says. "We've been blown away by the Chattanooga community and their response to the subscriptions. The response has been overwhelming."

The subscription option is attractive to some because it creates the opportunity for someone to purchase seats to the Broadway series and have those same seats forever, he adds.

"One thing that we're really working hard to communicate to Chattanooga is this is your chance to buy a subscription ticket and in 10 years from now, you'll have the same seats. This opportunity won't be the same forever. The best seats are this season," he says. "Individual tickets go on sale Monday, Nov. 14, so you can just buy tickets to one of the shows."

Although the Broadway series could be considered competition, much of the local theater community is also looking forward to it.

"I think it's really exciting. It sounds like they're having a great response from the community for their tickets, and we think that the interest in live theater can only shed light on the other theaters' options that are available in the community," says Kim Jackson, interim executive director of the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. "[Local theater] is a very different experience for the people involved and for the audience that comes than what the Tivoli Broadway series is offering. I think there's room for all of us in the community and it's a great thing that we're all here."

The Community Response

Although there may be room for everyone in the arts community, several local business owners and arts organizations are experiencing something different.

When the management of the Tivoli and Memorial Auditorium changed hands, the rental fees increased exponentially, effectively pricing many Chattanooga-area groups out of the venues. A 2013 rate card provided by a local nonprofit shows the Tivoli costing $1,700 a day on event day for ticketed shows or $1,500 a day for non-ticketed shows, and the rate for a load-in day or rehearsal day rental as 50 percent of the event day fee. According to a 2015 rate card, the new cost for the venue is $3,500 for event day as well as any rehearsal or load-in days.

"It greatly affected us and our business," says Melissa Strickland, owner of Karen Horton School of Dance in Hixson, a recreational dance studio with about 300 students ages 2-70. "We've used the Tivoli for 44 years. Our first recital was done at a high school, and ever since then we've been at the Tivoli except for the period when it was under construction, when we went to the Memorial Auditorium for a year. The studio had its 45th recital in June, and now we're no longer able to use the Tivoli for future events. This last recital was our last one there. There is going to be a lot of disappointment from the dancers."

For Strickland and many others, the city's management of the Tivoli offered pricing that was within reach. When the venues were turned over to AC Entertainment, the skyrocketed prices left several local nonprofit organizations, businesses and even schools scrambling to look for a more affordable place to call home.

"It would be three times as expensive on show night, and rehearsal nights would be six times as expensive," says Strickland. "There was just no way we could do that.

"We sell our tickets for $15 apiece and each of our dancers in the show gets one complimentary ticket," she adds. "We usually sell between 1,300 and 1,500 tickets including our dancers, so there's not a lot of venues that can actually hold the number we usually have in the audience."

Beyond the rental fees, Strickland says there is the added expense to hire union labor to run the technical aspects of the show. Although that has always been the case, under AC Entertainment's management, renters are required to have more union labor than what was needed in the past, and are also required to pay for use of the house lighting and soundboard.

"You also have to pay $1,000 for lights and $1,000 for sound - not the labor for the people who run them, just the privilege of using them. We've always paid the labor costs for various stagehands and techs, but now you need additional labor for lights and sound," says Strickland.

The pricing isn't the only thing that changed under the new management. With the addition of the Broadway series at the Tivoli, local theater companies are no longer allowed to perform Broadway in those main venues.

"I'm very excited about the Broadway shows coming. I think that anytime there is good theater happening, when one of us succeeds we all succeed," says JC Smith, executive director and chairman of the board of Closed Door Entertainment, a local nonprofit theater company. "But the problem I have is the marketing statement [by AC Entertainment] that 'We're finally bringing Broadway-caliber performance to the Chattanooga area,' when we've been bringing Chattanooga Broadway-caliber and definitely beyond touring-caliber performance at the Tivoli and Memorial Auditorium for five years now on a regular basis. There's no 'finally' about it. We've been here, they haven't."

CDE's "conglomeration of 60 musicians, eight directors, four painters, 12 seamstresses and a pool of more than 120 performers" has regularly performed four to eight shows a year at the Tivoli since 2011, he says. "Now we're down to one show a year at Robert K. Walker instead of the Tivoli where we'd rather be."

The smaller Robert Kirk Walker Theatre, located on the third floor of Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, is AC Entertainment's answer to the question of where these local arts organizations go if they can't afford the new rates or wish to perform Broadway shows.

"There are a lot of issues," Smith says of the space. "The other two theaters have access directly to their stages, while R.K. Walker is on the third floor. There is no freight elevator, so any sets have to be physically carried up three flights of stairs and then carried back down after the run. And we haven't had one single performance where someone hasn't said, 'I didn't know there was a theater there,' whereas when you say 'Tivoli' and 'Memorial,' people know exactly what you're talking about."

Another setback at the Robert K. Walker Theatre is the lighting and sound equipment, which Smith says is "subpar at best."

"The Tivoli and Memorial have fantastic light rigs and sound rigs, while the Walker has very little equipment at all, and what there is, the wiring is bad and shorts out a lot. I'm going to guess it's somewhere around 30 years old," he says. "It's very old equipment, and despite those issues, you have to pay $1,000 each for them - the same price for that as you would for the updated lighting and sound equipment in the Tivoli or Memorial Auditorium."

Space is also a major issue at the Robert K. Walker Theatre, which seats 801 to the Tivoli's 1,700 seats or the Memorial Auditorium main hall's capacity of 3,866. In a Goldilocks kind of scenario, Memorial is too large and the Robert K. Walker Theatre is too small to meet the needs of some local groups, which is part of the Tivoli's appeal.

"In R.K. Walker, there is basically no wing space whatsoever. It is truly built in the style of a concert hall and only has room for one or two people to sit backstage, not room for scene changes and set pieces," says Smith. "The bathrooms and dressing rooms are inconvenient and are extremely out of date and in disrepair and are in desperate need of remodeling. The orchestra pit is hardly big enough for more than comfortably seven players. It makes it difficult to have 60 people who are willing to play in our orchestra but we have to say, sorry, we can only fit 12 of you, and it's going to be crammed."

The Bottom Line

While local groups are struggling to afford these venues or find other options, those who run the Tivoli and Memorial are faced with challenges of their own.

"Essentially the rates that a lot of these groups were paying in all the venues, the city was losing money. They weren't even covering the cost it takes to open the door in terms of utilities and wear and tear on the venues, and certainly there was no money in a significant way for the remodeling and the repairs," says Heinig. "It's an unfortunate situation when we have to be the people who have to look and see what it takes to substantially operate ideally without any subsidy in the future and balance that against not chasing people away, so to speak, or making it unaffordable. But for all these years, the venues have essentially been given away. No business can support themselves when they're not even covering their cost."

The challenge at hand for AC Entertainment and the Tivoli Foundation is how to create the financial opportunity to repair and maintain these historic venues, says the Tivoli's manager.

"The Tivoli is such an icon in the community. It takes so much money to repair, not just maintain," Holscher says. "Ideally, there will be a major capital campaign eventually to do a major repair and remodel of the Tivoli. But in the meantime there is a lot of maintenance that, for whatever reason, was not done before we got here. We're putting a new roof over the audience lobby. The Tivoli Foundation just completed a lot of plaster repair, and all that takes money."

Although the importance of the bottom line comes as no surprise, Smith says AC Entertainment is "alienating a lot of people who are locals and want to use their own local venues and want to highlight local performers and artisans."

" I understand that the bottom line is important because it's a business, but you're also crushing local artists. If you kill off all the people who love the arts in the city, there's not going to be anybody to come and see your shows," he says. "It's heartbreaking to think that we've worked to build up our city and our artistic community and they've taken the only real beautiful venue we had and ousted all of us. It's essentially a crippling blow to our artistic community."

In spite of dueling priorities, the general consensus among these "ousted" groups is the idea that maybe they and the powers that be at the Tivoli and Memorial can come to a mutual agreement that benefits the venues' bottom line while also preserving the opportunity for locals to perform there.

"The times that the community uses it are limited in nature. It seems to me you could rent it to the community at rates that the community can afford when it's not being rented to anyone else at the time," says Strickland. "Then you're always full. If you go a weekend and it's not rented, that's lost revenue. It could be a win-win if they did both outreaches."

Holscher says AC Entertainment's rates for the venues are more affordable than many similar venues in the Southeast.

"I was in Charleston for almost 24 years and opened a performing arts center and arena and conventions center, and I can tell you that our rates here are lower than the performing arts center in Charleston," he says. "It's not that we're trying to chase anybody away. Maybe the Walker Theatre is a better place than the Tivoli. It may not have the look of the Tivoli, but from a capacity standpoint it might be more of a suitable space. We're certainly trying to work with all the community groups in that space. It's a smaller space and is easier to work financially in those groups."

The conversation of how to maintain the historic Tivoli Theatre and Memorial Auditorium while also finding a space for local artists may be a question that needs to be discussed by the arts community as a whole.

"If there's room for all of us in the community but people can't afford the literal room, then that creates a challenge," says Jackson. "We can be excited about something and think it can be a great, positive thing, but I think it's our responsibility to look at all the angles."