CEO of Team San Jose Bill Sherry, San Jose Civic GM John Ciulla and Nederlander Concerts CEO Alex Hodges outside the San Jose Civic are the subjects of this month's cover story.
After months of wondering about the shape of the San Jose (Calif.) Civic and how much time it would take to renovate the 2,900-seat theater, Nederlander CEO Alex Hodges knew a surprise was coming. Whether it was meeting an artist for the first time, or walking into a building that had sat dormant for years, Hodges knew to always be prepared for the unexpected. That’s something you pick up after working in the music business for 50 years — no matter what you think you’ve seen, there’s always a surprise lingering around the corner.
When Team San Jose took Hodges in for his first tour of the San Jose Civic in 2007, he once again was flabbergasted, this time by the strange, obnoxiously over-the-top color in the seating section.
Whose idea was it to install bright orange chairs?
Chalk that one up to the San Jose Skyrockets, a minor league basketball team from the American Basketball Association. The squad only played one season in the Civic, but managed to convince the city to turn the floor into a blue basketball court, and install the orange chairs — to match their team colors.
The Skyrockets have since moved to Minot, N.D., and the blue floor and orange chairs at the auditorium are long gone, replaced as part of a $16-million renovation campaign to turn the 76-year-old facility into a world-class concert facility. Located across the street from the San Jose Convention Center, the Civic is one of seven venues owned by the city and managed by Team San Jose, a public-private partnership between the Convention and Visitors Bureau, labor unions, local businesses, the hospitality industry and arts groups.
“The vision of the city has been revitalizing the downtown and it became a focus to invest in downtown and get people back into downtown,” said Bill Sherry, CEO of Team San Jose. “This theater plays a very critical role in the city.”
A Small Place In Rock History
As the posters on the walls of the San Jose Civic attest, the theater had some great runs, booking everyone from Duke Ellington to Barbra Streisand and The Rolling Stones. Legendary promoter Bill Graham booked the Civic during the 1970s, but eventually focused on more lucrative shows in San Francisco at venues like The Fillmore and San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium, now named the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium after the legendary promoter.
Starting in about 1980, San Jose Civic entered a dark era, rarely used or repaired and eventually completely overshadowed in 1993 by the San Jose Arena (now called HP Pavilion), home to the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League. After a failed attempt to revive the building in 2005 with the Skyscrapers basketball team, Team San Jose saw its operating losses on the Civic, the convention center and other facilities grow. While venues like the Fox Theatre in nearby Oakland were being reopened by Bill Graham protégés like Gregg Perloff and Sherry Wasserman of Another Planet Entertainment, Team San Jose was bogged down in deficits, posting a $6.9-million fiscal loss in 2009-2010. That included a $1 million loss from booking concerts in 2009 with Nederlander in a deal that put both parties at risk on concerts and eventually led to the suspension of the agreement.
Enter Sherry, the director of Aviation for Mineta-San Jose International Airport, who took over as CEO of Team San Jose in March 2011. Sherry was quick to hand over all booking responsibilities to Hodges and his team at Nederlander Concerts, which manages the Pantages Theatre and Greek Theatre in Hollywood, the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Bowl and The City National Grove in Anaheim (Calif.).
Under the new deal, Nederlander would take all the risk on concerts and utilize a more traditional rent model, with incentives for drawing large crowds and hitting food and beverage numbers, while Team San Jose operates concessions. Hodges has been able to bring a number of sellout concerts to the San Jose Civic including Yanni, Roger Daltrey and a Jan. 28 gig by Wilco, one of four Bay Area plays the band hit on their current tour.
“Everyone wants their favorite band to play, and everybody has a different favorite band. My job is to pierce through that, understand it and do what’s doable,” said Hodges. “What’s doable is diversity.”
For Hodges, that means everything from country and rock concerts to community events and corporate meetings. Software-maker Adobe and cosmetics company Mary Kay have activated the Civic during corporate conventions, and Mayor Chuck Reed has chosen the venue to deliver his annual state-of-the-city address. Nederlander brought in Feld Entertainment earlier this year for a Phineas and Ferb Live! date, and Italian operatic heartthrobs Il Divo have two shows at the Civic in July. He said he also made money on shows by Dierks Bentley, Tower of Power with War and Yo Gabba Gabba!
“The difference now is that we have a first class venue that’s noticed by the artists, the producer, other promoters and, of course, the audience,” Hodges said.
Improving the Overall Experience
Many of the renovations are designed to improve the “creature comforts” that audiences have come to expect from theaters and modern arenas. Team San Jose introduced a number of new concession points of sales for both their bar and food, replaced the orange seats with comfortable chairs and got closer to what Sherry calls ‘potty parity,’ increasing the number of women’s stalls from four to 16. A wall of fame featuring huge concert photos of acts who have played the building dot the inside hallway, and crews are still dedicated to protecting the building’s classic Spanish mission style, with its regal white columns, cathedral-like bell tower and clay tile roof.
And, of course, the back of house was improved, too. Artist’ dressing rooms, green rooms and catering areas were all upgraded, and a number of structures behind the facility were knocked down to improve the loading dock accessibility. GM John Ciulla said the facility has spent $1 million upgrading the sound system and video boards, and is preparing to fund a $300,000 theatrical lighting installation.
“If a band wants to just come in, unload plug in, and play — you got it,” Ciulla said.
Sherry said he hopes Nederlander will bring more marquee acts to the Civic — personally, he’d like to see the Doobie Brothers play — but he’s planning to take a more traditional landlord role and let Hodges handle the booking. He’s also changed the way success of the building is measured, and says it’s not only important to sell tickets to the building, but also for the building to help sell the city.
“We know this thing isn’t going to pay for itself right off the bat and our focus has been less on the revenue generation and more on getting people back downtown, getting bodies downtown, having dinner and drinks at our great restaurants and staying at our hotels” he said. “We want to activate all of downtown with events and experiences for all different types of audience members. Every show we do, we gain ground.”
Interviewed for this story: Alex Hodges, (323) 665-5857; Bill Sherry, (408) 295-9600; John Ciulla, (408) 792-4111