Sunday, February 23, 2003

Dayton arts center readies its 'triple wow'

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Three weeks before opening night at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center in Dayton, the glass-enclosed "Wintergarden" was buzzing with workers racing among heavy equipment, electrical cords, ladders and two groves of 20- to 45-foot tall palm trees to put the finishing touches on Dayton's glittering new centerpiece.

"There's a humongous change in the last five hours," says architect Cesar Pelli, who also designed Cincinnati's Aronoff Center. "Everything will be covered with dust and sheets of plywood, then something phenomenal happens in the last moment. It's like the bride who has a shower, gets dressed up and is a whole different person."

The $121 million Schuster Center is the new home of the Dayton Philharmonic and Dayton Opera, which on Saturday will help inaugurate the soaring Mead Theatre in a gala "Evening of Stars." Sunday, the whole city is invited to a daylong "community open house."

For the first time, Dayton will have a stage large enough for blockbuster operas such as Aida in March, and touring Broadway shows, such as Phantom of the Opera in June and July. Its stakeholders hope the center will revive a fading downtown.

"It's what I call `the triple wow factor' for people coming here," says Thomas Bankston, artistic director of Dayton Opera. "They'll come into the Wintergarden and go `Wow,' and they'll enter the new theater, and it's another `wow.' You look up and see the star field ceiling, the lights go down and the curtain goes up - and it's another `wow.' It's a fabulous time to be here."

The countdown is ticking. Monday, a glass wall inscribed with donors' names will be unveiled. Friday, more than 580 patrons will enjoy dinner in the Wintergarden at $1,000 a plate. They'll be sitting in the area that soon will be a trendy restaurant called Citilites, overseen by Paris-trained chef Jayson Lewellyn. The Wintergarden's striking features include a massive spiral staircase and a "community stage," where organizers hope locals will gravitate seven days a week.

"With a bit of creativity the free functions in the Wintergarden can be as important to the life of Dayton as the grand performances in the interior," Pelli says.

The signs are good

Street signs already point the way to the Schuster Center. The gleaming new building rose on the corner of Second and Main, once a hub of a bustling retail business - now almost nonexistent in downtown Dayton. At noon Friday, Main Street (between First and Second) will be renamed Avenue of the Arts, defining a tony new theater district.

Behind the block-long glass fa┴ade of the Wintergarden, a shimmering wall of vermilion fabric beckons visitors inside. The 2,300-seat Mead Theatre, in turquoise and terra cotta, sparkles with strings of fiber-optic lights and balconies that seem to levitate.

Looking straight up, you get one of the most breathtaking views in Dayton - the constellations of the night sky positioned as they were 100 years ago when the Wright brothers made their first flight, twinkling at the peak of a spiral.

"To me, anything that allows my buildings to connect or take root with the place where they are is extremely important," says Pelli, who says the idea of putting in stars just "crossed my mind one day." When he and his team realized that Dayton was celebrating "Inventing Flight" this year, they had the project's crowning touch.

Theater for orchestra

Unlike the Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble Hall, which was designed mainly for Broadway shows, Mead Theatre is specifically designed for orchestral music. The Norwalk, Conn., firm Jaffe Holden Acoustics Inc., the acoustician for Fort Worth's Bass Hall, the first multiuse hall in North America, has designed the space so that the orchestra will be thrust 25 feet into the hall on motorized platforms, displacing 176 seats, for a "surround sound" effect.

"Everyone is pretty pumped, and playing very well," says Dayton Philharmonic music director Neal Gittleman, whose orchestra is celebrating its 70th anniversary. "I'm most excited about the opportunities that it presents to us, in terms of sounding better and playing with a wider palette of sound. We've had to work very hard (in their old home, Memorial Hall) in order just to feel that we were filling the space."

The 83-member orchestra has a $4.5 million budget and its musicians play on a "per service" basis. Gittleman does not anticipate growing, but he hopes to build interest with an impressive lineup next season, including superstar pianist Andre Watts, violinist Midori and guest conductor James DePreist.

"In the next few years, we're going to try and solidify the audience growth we've had with the excitement of the Schuster Center," he says.

Opera, ballet feel effects

Dayton Opera also has felt the impact of the "Schuster factor." Subscriptions have grown by 700, to 3,200 sold this year. Excitement is mounting, too, at Dayton Ballet, which will use the hall for its larger productions. On April 4, the company will give the world premiere of Robin Hood, a ballet set in New York in 1776.

"We expect houses that we won't be able to compare to any other houses," says Dermot Burke, artistic director of Dayton Ballet. "People are finding out, because of baseball, that downtown is not a scary thing."

Combined with Dayton's new ballpark for the minor league Dragons, Fifth Third Field, Dayton has come up with what planners believe will be a winning formula for urban renewal: performing arts and baseball.

Add the 600,000 expected to come downtown to see the Dragons play to the 900,000 who are anticipated at the Schuster Center and its neighboring 1,141-seat Victoria Theatre "and you've got 1.5 million people coming downtown," says Mark Light, president of the Arts Center Foundation, which will own and manage the center.

When Phantom of the Opera opens in the Schuster Center in June and July, the Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbuster is expected to pump $8.5 million into Dayton's economy, as people eat in restaurants, book hotel rooms, have a drink and park. The presenters (the Victoria Theatre Association) hope to reap gross ticket sales of more than $4 million - the biggest arts event ever in Dayton.

Angels are watching

That "Schuster factor" keeps popping up. "We didn't expect to sell out all of the tickets to the United as ONE concert on March 3 (with gospel stars Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin and Yolanda Adams) in two hours," Light says. "These things did not exist in our community in 1995."

The project also includes a $9 million attached garage and Performance Place Tower, an adjacent office and residential tower.

From the onset, the project's financial picture has been charmed, Light says.

"It's almost as though we had an angel watching over it," says Light. "We raised money in the late '90s, when the stock market couldn't have been better. We built the project in the last three years, when construction was slowing down, and it made the bidding process very competitive. And we borrowed money over the last year (because some pledges are outstanding) at a time when interest rates have been the lowest in memory.

"If you tried to write a script, you couldn't have written a better script for fund raising and spending."

Architect Pelli can't wait for the center to be filled with people.

"Stradivarius designed the most wonderful violin, but the violin by itself doesn't make any music," Pelli says. "Somebody needs to play it."


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