Chattanooga is Making a Name for Itself as a Destination for Traveling Broadway Shows
Cinderella / (first) Photo Courtesy of AC Entertainment Photo by Carol Rosegg | The Tivoli Theater / (second and third) Photos Courtesy of The Tivoli Theatre Foundation
Professional theater companies were a British import in Colonial America, which seems almost commonsensical if you consider, well, Shakespeare. None of the colonies’ economies were able to support these theater companies for an entire season, so instead, they toured. But this wasn’t quite theater as we know it today.
The U.S. origins of Broadway can be traced back to the mid-18th century in New York City when two men, Thomas Kean and Walter Murray, started an in-house theater company on Nassau Street. This new theater could hold upwards of 280 people and typically showed Shakespearian plays and ballad operas.
As was the case with numerous other endeavors, theater productions came to a halt during the Revolutionary War. But upon their resumption following the war, several new, larger theaters were built, and America began to develop its own entertainment style. But even still, musical theater as we know it didn’t quite exist until nearly a century later.
The first theater performance associated with modern conventions of a musical, like dance and original music, is considered to be The Black Crook, which premiered in 1866. While almost obscenely long – it clocked a near five and a half hours – the show broke records, running for 474 performances.
Today, a Broadway production refers to a performance in any of the 40 theaters containing at least 500 seats and located in the theater district of Manhattan. For many, having a show performed on Broadway is the greatest indication of success for professional musical theater. A show will continue running as long as it’s profitable. For example, Phantom of the Opera has been staged over 12,000 times and has been running for 29 years.
After their run ends, or sometimes even while it’s still in the swing of things, Broadway shows will often begin a national tour to share their art with those outside of New York City. And that’s where Chattanooga enters stage left.
The Sound of Music / Photo Courtesy of AC Entertainment Photo by Matthew Murphy
As the founder of Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, partner for Birmingham’s Sloss Music & Arts Festival, and booker for The Orange Peel in Asheville, AC Entertainment has spent the past 25 years developing relationships and establishing themselves as industry experts.
“The Tivoli Theatre Foundation was willing to take a risk, spend the money, and make sure we were doing it with the best of the best. We wanted to hire the best people in the business who know how to do it – and know how to do it successfully,” says Wilkinson.
Since taking over management of the Tivoli in 2015, AC Entertainment, under the direction of The Tivoli Theatre Foundation, has increased the number of national traveling artists hosted at the theater from 10 a year, to now in year three, being on track for 40.
Not long after partnering with The Tivoli Theatre Foundation, AC Entertainment sent in Dave Holscher to fill the role of general manager for Chattanooga’s three venues. Prior to this, Holscher was the general manager for the North Charleston Coliseum, the Charleston Performing Arts Center, and the Charleston Area Convention Center in South Carolina. Holscher is responsible for the visitors’ overall experience when they attend shows – everything from running the programming to managing the staff.
Ted Heinig, vice president of concerts with AC Entertainment, is in charge of booking programming. Heinig, a 20-year AC Entertainment veteran, has spent the past nine years learning as much as possible about the Broadway marketplace.
“I’m responsible for what are we going to bring in and looking at what’s on the horizon. But I can’t do what I’m doing without Dave [Holscher] there on site as the GM, running the programming and setting the stage for an overall great experience. And without Nick [Wilkinson], none of this would be possible. We’re one big family doing what we can to bring great live entertainment to Chattanooga,” quips Heinig.
In terms of Broadway, Chattanooga was an unproven market. Could a mid-sized city sustain a Broadway series? It quickly became clear that AC Entertainment needed to prove Chattanooga was viable.
“Relationship and reputation are so incredibly important in Broadway. We always joke that in the entertainment world, there aren’t six degrees of separation, there’s one degree,” says Holscher.
Heinig explains the real challenge is selling Broadway agents a story that their show is going to be successful in your venue in your city. “We knew Chattanooga had massive potential. Thankfully, AC Entertainment had a really strong track record in taking the Tennessee Theatre from square one in 2008, to where it was in 2015. When we started pitching the Tivoli, we were able to make comparisons, and I was able to get some agents to take a chance on us.”
Motown the Musical / Photo Courtesy of AC Entertainment Photo by Michael Pool
“We’re one big family doing what we can to bring great live entertainment to Chattanooga.”
Kinky Boots / Photos Courtesy of AC Entertainment (first) Photo by Matthew Murphy | Stomp / (second) Photo by Steve McNicholas
Once shows have been selected, it’s more than simply booking the performances. There’s a delicate balance between putting a season together, working with each show’s agent, and marketing it well. If any part of the puzzle isn’t done well, it’s a losing combination and the whole series could be unsuccessful.
“It was really a gutsy move for our board of directors to let us take such a risk. But thankfully it is paying off not incrementally, but exponentially,” remarks Wilkinson.
The 2016-2017 season exceeded the team’s expectations. “Industry eyes are on Chattanooga, and agents have perked up. If we have proven success, then more shows want to participate. If more shows want to participate, then we can enhance the experience for our patrons and build a top-flight entertainment program,” says Holscher.
The Broadway series at the Tivoli has done tremendously well. It has been much more successful, much quicker than anyone expected. In just two seasons, the team has built and continues to build a consistent subscription
base, which is ultimately the foundation for solid ticket sales. Subscription package sales for the 2017-2018 season have already increased by 50% over last season. Also, this season has expanded by adding a sixth title as opposed to the previous season’s five. The team agrees that enormous credit goes to the community for providing them the ability to expand the series in just two seasons. “It speaks volumes about what a great city Chattanooga
is and what a hunger they have for supporting the arts and live entertainment,” praises Heinig.
The addition of a Broadway series hasn’t solely benefited the Tivoli, but also Chattanooga’s overall economy. This August, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development announced another record-breaking year of economic impact. Hamilton County was one of five in the state to exceed $1 billion in travel expenditures. Chattanooga continues to become a destination for tourists, due in large part to the entertainment and offerings it provides.
Whether locals or tourists, patrons don’t only spend money on tickets for venues’ shows, but often make a show the basis for an entire evening or weekend. Drinks and dinner out before the show, dessert afterward, perhaps.
In fact, many area restaurants will request performance schedules for the Tivoli and Memorial Auditorium in order to know when they should increase their staff to handle increased pre-performance crowds.
As the Tivoli grows into its reputation as the “Home of Broadway” in Chattanooga, the Scenic City’s reputation to be recognized regionally and even nationally as a city who loves and supports the arts, grows as well. And with that, Chattanooga’s culture, economy, and so much else will continue to benefit.
“Broadway is a universal art form. It takes the city and the venue and puts them together in such a way that gets the community even more invested, especially emotionally. Broadway is the cornerstone of connecting the community with the theater,” reflects Heinig.
Jersey Boys / Photo Courtesy of AC Entertainment Photo by Joan Marcus
Broadway’s mass appeal is evident in this season’s remaining diverse offerings. Following October’s successful run of The Sound of Music, here’s what else you can look forward to:
With songs by Grammy® and Tony® winning pop icon Cyndi Lauper, this joyous musical celebration is about the friendships we discover, and the belief that you can change the world when you change your mind. Inspired by true events, Kinky Boots takes you from a gentlemen’s shoe factory in Northampton to the glamorous catwalks of Milan. With direction and choreography by two-time Tony Award®-winner Jerry Mitchell and a book by Broadway legend and four-time Tony Award®-winner Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots is the winner of six Tony Awards®, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Choreography.
Kicking off Broadway in the New Year is the Tony Award®-winning Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. This production features the classic moments you remember – the pumpkin, the glass slipper, the masked ball, and more – plus some surprising new twists! Be transported back to your childhood as you rediscover some of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s most beloved songs, including “In My Own Little Corner,” “Impossible/It’s Possible,” and “Ten Minutes Ago,” in this humorous and romantic Broadway experience for anyone who’s ever had a wish, a dream… or a really great pair of shoes.
Jersey Boys is the 2006 Tony, Grammy, and Olivier Award®-winning Best Musical about Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Four Seasons: Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito, and Nick Massi. This is the true story of how four blue-collar kids became one of the greatest successes in pop music history. They wrote their own songs, invented their own sounds, and sold 175 million records worldwide – all before they were 30! Jersey Boys features their hit songs “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Rag Doll,” “Oh What a Night,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
It began as one man’s story … became everyone’s music … and is now Broadway’s musical. Motown the Musical is the true American dream story of Motown founder Berry Gordy’s journey from featherweight boxer to the heavyweight music mogul who launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, and many more. Motown shattered barriers, shaped our lives and made us all move to the same beat. Featuring songs such as “My Girl” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” guests will learn the story behind the music.
The season closes with Stomp, an international percussion sensation that has garnered an armful of awards and rave reviews, and has appeared on numerous national television shows. The eight-member troupe uses everything but conventional percussion instruments – matchboxes, wooden poles, brooms, garbage cans, Zippo lighters, hubcaps – to fill the stage with magnificent rhythms. The return of the percussive hit also brings some new surprises and the addition of two new full-scale routines that utilize props like tractor tire inner tubes and paint cans.