Westchester venues brace for Capitol Theatre's return
While music fans gear up for Tuesday's reopening of The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester following months of renovations, directors of two nearby Westchester concert venues say that they remain focused on their own programming.
Opening in 1926 and peaking in the '70s with acts that included Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead, "The Cap" fell out of favor with performers in recent decades and more often served as a catering facility. Over the past few months, Capitol Theatre owner Peter Shapiro has invested millions in the facility to spruce up the building and upgrade its sound and lighting systems.
Plenty of other performance venues exist throughout the region, from the 275-seat Emelin Theater in Mamaroneck to the 1,500-seat Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston. But two Westchester County venues -- the Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill and Tarrytown Music Hall -- may be the most affected by The Capitol's return due to the combination of theater size, proximity and programming.
"I'm not really looking at it either way," said Lisa Reiss, director of the Paramount. "It's another theater, and it happens to be on the other side of Westchester County ... I'm not particularly worried about them, and I'm not worried about competing with them."
Björn Olsson, the executive director at the Music Hall, says his awareness has heightened since the announcement of The Cap's return. He says the Music Hall has also upgraded its sound and lighting systems this year, but claims the tweaks were planned before news of The Cap's reopening.
"Obviously, we're paying close attention," he said. "We're not changing the way we work in any major way. Maybe we sharpen our tools a little bit. In some sense, we've probably been a part of making this happen, in that we've shown that Westchester is a viable music scene. ... Ultimately, it's good for concertgoers in Westchester. We're for it."
Built in 1885, Tarrytown Music Hall was almost razed in the late '70s to make way for a parking lot. But the nonprofit Friends of the Mozartina Musical Arts Conservatory saved Westchester County's oldest theater in 1980, paving the way for renovations that restored life to its exterior and credibility to its interior. The 843-seat Music Hall is just a 14-mile, 24-minute Interstate 287 drive away from The Cap, which can hold more than double the audience (1,835), albeit with much of its crowd standing on the lower level via general admission tickets.
A little farther from The Cap is the Paramount, a 960-seat theater that's about 30 miles and a 45-minute drive away. Opened as a movie complex in 1930, the Paramount had an original seating capacity (1,500) closer to that of The Cap, but an eventual move to nonprofit ownership and changes in philosophy prompted renovations that yielded the removal of several hundred seats.
The Cap reopens Tuesday with a performance by legendary folk rocker Bob Dylan, whose show there sold out in "one or two minutes," according to Shapiro. It will be the second time the Grammy Award-winning artist is headlining a Hudson Valley theater venue within a 48-hour span: The singer-songwriter is the main act for a show this Sunday at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Sullivan County.
Reiss has already dealt with a similar Capitol Theatre booking conundrum. Fewer than three weeks before Blues Traveler played an Aug. 23 show the Paramount, The Cap announced that the rock band would be sharing an Oct. 13 show with the Spin Doctors at the Port Chester venue.
"Peter Shapiro offered to give an e-blast to his Relix [magazine mailing] list as a thank-you for not stopping him from announcing that he has Blues Traveler [performing at The Capitol Theatre]," said Reiss, who added that she agreed to those terms. "That's what you call playing well with others in your market. And we didn't lose any money because they'll have Blues Traveler there, nor did I go out of my way from advertising Blues Traveler, recognizing that they're having a package [with Spin Doctors], and that it's further down the road."
Shapiro confirmed that they reached an agreement, and said the long-term benefits of another concert theater venue in the county could outweigh the drawbacks.
"Hopefully, everyone is going to see more shows," Shapiro said. "We don't want to hurt anyone; we want everyone to see more music, and more shows ... Hopefully, higher water lifts small boats."
Olsson has similar hopes. "What I think could happen between us, the Paramount and the Capitol, is that it actually becomes more of a scene, and people get more used to seeing music in Westchester -- maybe even traveling in from the city even to a greater extent than they were doing."
Reiss, however, says she doubts The Cap's return will make a difference at her box office.
"Most of their audience is going to come from the New York [City] market, not necessarily from the mid-Hudson area, where we're located," Reiss said.
Shapiro said he believes The Cap could attract fans beyond the tri-state area as well.
"With the location on I-95, and the [Port Chester] train station, in some ways the location is even better than New York City," said Shapiro, who also helped found the Brooklyn Bowl bowling and concert venue. "At Brooklyn Bowl, for instance, we know that we've sold a ticket in every state in America, plus 45 countries ... The Cap, if it works, could become something that attracts people from across the East Coast."
Both the Paramount and the Music Hall remain nonprofit -- meaning they receive tax exemptions for educational programs and other community services -- while The Cap is a for-profit venue. The Paramount has been mounting a campaign to fundraise $300,000 for theater programming, centering efforts around a Sept. 15 red-carpet gala and concert by the classic rock band Foreigner. The Music Hall also hosts an annual fundraising gala. Both nonprofit venues also raise money through memberships that grant members early access to ticket sales and other benefits.
"We have a slightly different mandate," Olsson said. "We are a concert venue, but we're also nonprofit, so we're also serving the community. So, in essence, a lot of people only see the concerts, but we also have the community theater organizations that we support ... We're kind of used to being The Little Theater that Could, even though we've grown tremendously in the last couple of years. Now, in comparison to The Capitol, maybe we can be The Little Theater that Could, again."
Reiss says the Paramount's nonprofit status has its advantages and disadvantages. "There will be times that [The Capitol] will get a show that I wish I had gotten first, but for the most part, I think they are going to be targeting a different demographic and a different audience," she said. "And certainly, because they're not a not-for-profit performing arts center, you won't see 'Swan Lake' there."
Although the Music Hall and Paramount book their share of rock, pop and R&B concerts, you're more likely to catch comedy, dance and other arts exhibitions at those two venues than you will at The Cap, whose current 2012-13 schedule appears to be exclusively concert-oriented (unless "House" star Hugh Laurie momentarily breaks from his Copper Bottom Band to perform some comedy).
That will change, however, in the near future, according to Shapiro.
"We have some comedy [acts] confirmed that we're announcing shortly," he said.
Perhaps another mitigating factor is the nearby Westchester County Center, a White Plains venue that can host between 2,600 and 5,000, depending on the seating arrangement. Those who fear local concert booking saturation could cite its proximity (just a 9-mile, 15-minute drive east to get to The Cap) and recent programming overhaul to accommodate adult concerts and comedy (e.g. The Beach Boys and Whoopi Goldberg). A key difference, however, is that the County Center has only scheduled a half-dozen stage acts for all of 2012. Compare that to the Paramount, Music Hall and Cap, which are all slated to burn through at least that many shows in a typical two-week span this fall.
Regardless of the groundswell of performance opportunities in the Hudson Valley, Reiss said she'll continue to "brand the Paramount as the Paramount."
"It's not changing my approach," she added. "It's just making me cognizant of what other venues are programming."
Olsson says he has reason to be optimistic.
"We have a stronger season than we've ever had; we have more shows," he said. "Our fall sales are up 30 percent compared to last year at this point. So far, so good. Hopefully, there's room for everybody."