Expect Vegas in the Wisconsin Dells. Amid expanding resort complexes and yearly new attractions, there was still one thing missing in the Dells: shows and entertainment – Vegas style. High impact entertainment is the name of the game with the partnership of Tommy Bartlett, Inc. owner, Tom Diehl and Kalahari Resorts head Todd Nelson as new co-owners of the Crystal Grand Music Theatre. The new arrangement has already been packing the 2,000 seat venue and aroused new interest in the Crystal Grand as the place to see and hear the best shows in the Dells.
The entry of the Dells as an entertainment destination is now in full view at the new Crystal Grand Music Theatre which for years was largely geared to country music and was operational only a few nights a year. The old Crystal Grand functioned laboriously on a plodding schedule of less than 25 shows per year and hobbled behind other venues even as new techno upgrades became essential for modern stage performances. It was in a particularly strained position offering an almost exclusive country fare substantially limiting its appeal to Dells customers expecting variety and Vegas style performers and shows.
Absent these commitments to country music, the new Crystal Grand rolls out an entertainment calendar expanding the traditional country music theatre to a rock and comedy stage and offers a wider genre of new acts including theatre shows, national speakers, family shows and special unique performances. It is set to champion various streams of music and shows with an ambitious panoply of entertainment, frontloaded by two of the Dells’ most heralded entrepreneurs, and is already sending a ripple through the area as THE place to party. The new Crystal Grand has all the makings of a triumph.
Since Diehl and Nelson combined forces last year, national artists, Grammy winners and rocker icons have performed in a new star-studded concert line-up and are bringing the site to life. Business has been robust and results indicate the pair’s efforts are making an impact.
The new Crystal Grand is a much–needed catalyst filling consumer demand for a sparkling entertainment theatre that offers more fun, more music and bigger shows in the Dells. This move comes at the heels of the demise of the Broadway Dinner Theatre which failed to capture public attention as the place to go for entertainment and was a victim of reduced cash flow due to audience indifference. Even as the concept started initially successful, expectations for big shows were disappointed and interest stalled. With attendance plummeting, it bumped along the bottom, later becoming unsupportable and finally sputtering into eclipse.
That lesson may have disheartened further interest in big ticket entertainment venues further lacerated by economic rut and left an entertainment gap unfilled until now. The idea of a new Crystal Grand holding a more modern brand while still honoring its country pedigree reshuffles the whole playbook and was enough to pique the competitive drive of Diehl and Nelson to proceed in defiance of the past warning. It was also a shot at redemption, a chance to shrug off tiresome images of bland sit-down entertainment.
Last year original co-owners of the Crystal Grand scrambled to clear out, peeling off their half of the business for sale. Despite the bailout of his partners, Dells grandmaster Tom Diehl, a co-owner, held tight, disbelieving the concept was flawed and discounted as exaggerations talk of doom and denouement. Before the dominos collided, the quest was on to find a suitable successor to perform the transition without seams. Badly needed, Diehl concluded, was a co-director to helm a jump-start and birth a new star. Someone who was comfortable shifting gears, whose judgment had proven nearly unbeatable and most importantly someone who knows how to spawn some buzz.
“I knew we had gone as far as we could just being a country music venue”, says Tom Diehl. “To ensure the long-term success of this wonderful facility we wanted to expand the mix of artists coming to this theatre and we sorely needed to have professional marketing in place to promote the new concept.”
Diehl then offered a partnership opportunity to friend and fellow Dells entrepreneur Todd Nelson, creator of Kalahari Resorts. “I’ve been involved with the Crystal Grand for 13 years. There has been no learning curve. We knew what to do.” Diehl added.
Nelson, afresh from the success of his new Kalahari indoor theme park, was still hungry for new deals and jumped on an opportunity to team with Diehl for co-ownership of the Crystal Grand. Believing that the Kalahari empire would not be complete without an entertainment venue, Nelson placed a bold bet on the Crystal Grand and began aggressively doling out cash and ramping up improvements and modifications. The race was on with both pinning rebound hopes on versatility and the chance to reach for the stars.
“We want the big acts”, says Nelson. “We want to put this place on the map.”
But what entranced Nelson most was the possibility to weave a new dream in a dream weaver industry. Having made his mark in the Dells by creating an African-themed mega-resort amid speculation that such was a sure loser, Nelson is the ultimate weaver of magical realism. The chance to partner with a stalwart friend delivered a ferocious incentive to make this new business work.
“In the past, the Crystal Grand got virtually none of its business outside of its traditional customers”, states Diehl. “We are now expanding and putting together aggressive marketing plans to reach customers within a 120-mile range of the Dells.”
Reaching larger audiences than ever before, the duo have set a-spin new entertainment offerings and infused a new mood and allure to the theatre with game-changing innovations morphing the Crystal Grand into the biggest, splashiest and most ambitious stage in the Dells. The rules of booking the same old country acts in repertory rotation have been provisionally rejected as the pair focuses on creating new content intended to inject a hit of high-profile show time magic and wooing in new artists from the lucrative entertainment business. A nascent formula for an entertainment revival in the Dells was launched.
Throughout this joint ownership, Diehl and Nelson have kept tight control of their individual enterprises, yet when it came to creating a business worthy of their efforts, each one reached out to a respected equal. Bridging partnership and long-term friendship, Tom Diehl and Todd Nelson used their bond to show what an idea, several decades and a passion for entertainment can accomplish. With a new creative partnership in place even their differences became complementary. Adding their own nuances unique to each other’s specialty has made the deal click and cemented a long relationship.
Being partial to the more challenging endeavors is only one part of the motivation, Diehl and Nelson claim. “It is not simply about creating a new theatre, but more about creating a music experience not before available”, says Diehl. ”We want to make a fun, exciting music theatre that will bring a wide array of shows and music not before seen in the Dells”, adds Nelson.
They have also amped up the Crystal Grand with new imagineering, Disney-style.
Once signed on, Nelson soon harnessed former Disney whiz-kid Cary Brandt, now heavily titled as Corporate Creative Director of Entertainment for Kalahari. He is tasked to shepherd the new creative entertainment effort, hunt down the best acts and transform the theatre to one of the hottest places for revelers to go. His assignment is to think large, bring in a new demographic without repelling traditional customers and reverse-engineer the public perception that the Crystal Grand is old fashioned and static. And to ditch that pink exterior paint job.
No problem. The pink walls and purple carpets are gone. The new Crystal Grand is renovated, retrofitted and refurbished. A needed stimulus shot has been fired into this graceful courtly southern-style mansion whose warm Kodachrome charm belies the changes within. This epic Colossal to old –time country music has given way to star sizzle in a move to outdo yesterday’s spectacle with something more spectacular.
The interior is undergoing an overhaul and systematic scale-up and signs of life are everywhere. Declaratively visible inside is an impressive high-tech playground resplendent with visual feasts. Brandt describes it as “science” with “perfect harmonics” offering as evidence the “state of the art system recalibrated and realigned with expert top of the line equalization no matter where you sit.”
The music sound system has been ramped up and decibel-accelerated resulting in truly powerful, damn near wild performances. The new percussive sound system has all the makings of a sound cyclone hurling heavy exhausts of amplification creating a powerful vibrato indispensable to the gestalt of the music.
The whole place pulses and occasionally gives way to neck whips.
Upgraded lights and theatre effects strengthen the stage shows and provide a spectral aspect to the experience. The meld of music and lights creates an atmosphere of hyperactive density and gathering force of bedlam magic.
A grand staircase adds to the glamour along with a well-appointed bar, food and the synergy of vibrancy and versatility which all fuse nicely in a room already architecturally ambitious. The lobby is a great hub for aesthetic speculation where guests walk, muse and view the new look which bespeaks of ambitious future plans to commodify cool design, add a themed lobby and erase the stale milieu.
Select shows also feature “tailgate parties” held outdoors prior to show time and offer grilled food, drinks, live music and dancing under a large tent. Both show/dinner packages and show/accommodation packages are available. “We want to blend a House of Blues to a Planet Hollywood with a Hard Rock Café”, says Brandt.
A music cosmopolis is born.
The Dells as a music and show mecca is set to be marshaled by the new Crystal Grand now poised to anchor the summer nightlife scene.
If the Crystal Grand still makes you think only of country music, think again. The new Crystal Grand is now in breakout mode and is deliberately threatening to end a period of tame. A former laggard making a nuclear push.
It’s a Las Vegas vibe and hip-hop benediction.
It is the newest Dells dazzle. A year-round retreat for the endless summer.
About the author:
Eva M. Neterowicz is the author of the books, The Tragedy of Tibet, and Tibet: The Endurance of a National Ideal and has been a member of the nationally recognized Washington Independent Writers organization and a contributing editor to Hispanic Magazine. She has written numerous articles on the Wisconsin Dells and is the owner of her own public relations/ government affairs business.