Tama Lundquist and Gary Becker, Ace Theatrical, greet guests Tabitha and Steve Hauser, retired agent. (VT Photo)
REPORTING FROM SUGAR LAND, TEXAS — The 6,400-seat, $85-million Smart Financial Center opened Jan.14 with two sold-out shows by Jerry Seinfeld, followed Jan. 15 by a sold-out Don Henley show.
For Gary Becker, who is in charge of the project for his legendary family, it is a seven-year dream come true.
“It’s in our hometown – Houston,” Becker said. “When we sold our company [Pace Concerts and Pace Motor Sports] in 1999 to SFX, even though the Pace people ran SFX, there was a disconnect between the Becker family and what was going on two to four years later.”
While they have stayed in the business with Ace Theatricals, which they sold to Ambassador Theater Group a few years ago, there was an itch to re-engage “the Becker touch,” he admitted. “Everything is so different now. The business is so different, but the environment around here is the way it was when we had Pace.”
“The Becker touch is how the people see the business and see their job,” Becker said.
Smart Financial Center is city owned, but the Beckers have a longterm lease and at least $60 million invested in the project. They are paying the city to lease it and did benefit from city infrastructure investments, including the parking lot and plaza.
The theater boasts a beautiful proscenium stage, and an 80-line set system, 100 feet wide. The orchestra pit moves up and down hydraulically. “There has been a lot of attention to acoustics; we have the L’Acoustics II sound system, the best there is,” Becker said.
Moveable walls and a curtain customize the theater configuration to three sizes from 2,000 to 6,400 seats. “For Billy Crystal, we have walls that move in and a balcony drape that falls down and you will think you’re in a 3,000-seat venue,” Becker said. “The intimacy is the same as at 6,400.”
To date, they have 25 performances planned at 6,400 seats of likely 105 performance days in the first calendar year. Becker said they are already growing shows booked at the smaller configuration, adding seats as sales skyrocket.
Martin Short and Steve Martin were set for 4,600. “Now they will sell out 6,400,” Becker said, adding Crystal was also an increase, “because the market has not seen something like this. We’re selling lots of tickets.”
There is room in the market for a theater like this, the likes of which Houston has never seen, he said.
They have a partnership with Live Nation, which also operates a very successful amphitheater, the Woodlands. Becker expects double plays. Some shows will just play Sugar Land.
“Amphitheaters are a great way to see big shows,” he said. “If you’re my age, 57, and you want to see Billy Crystal or Tony Bennett, you want parking and all the comforts, and you don’t want to be outside.”
Diversity is definitely in the mix. On Feb. 4, the Saturday night before the big game at NRG Stadium in Houston, they will host the Maxim Super Bowl party. To do so, they will cover the lower seating bowl and stage with a deck and build out a new stage and nightclub. “We can do anything. Write a check,” Becker said. Deck to the back of the seating bowl and build a stage on top of our stage. They’ll create a nightclub for Saturday night before Super Bowl.
“If the experience is the experience people want to have, they will come,” Becker said. “We could use 1,000 more seats on some shows, but you can’t lose the intimacy. Every seat is so good.”
Ticketmaster handles ticketing. Spectrum has catering and concessions.
Twelve of 14 suites (20 tickets each) were sold in advance.
What would he have changed? Someone engineered out the kitchen. A new one is being built out back. Meanwhile Spectrum is under tent, but they’re used to it, he said. They do a lot of outdoor events.