On a very hot August night in 1975, my hometown, Yakima, Washington, was engulfed in flames. The source of the fire was the city's historic 1920s Capital Theatre. It took 65 firefighters to put out the blaze, and what was left of the building once the embers had cooled was a charred mess.
I've heard the story told many times, not because of the magnitude of the fire, but because of what happened next. Two years after it burned, the Capitol Theatre was rebuilt and reopened and the man my city has to thank for that is none other than today's Gaillard Center President and CEO Tom Tomlinson.
So how'd he end up here? Well, Tomlinson is something of a journeyman theater builder. After earning his theater degree from Eastern Washington University, Tomlinson dabbled in acting. "I was in a show that ran for a very long time, Stallag 17. I learned through that process I'm not a good enough actor to go out on stage every day," Tomlinson says. "Maybe this is why I love building buildings. I loved getting to opening night."
His love of opening nights channeled itself into becoming one of the foremost historic theater revivers, working on four League of Historic American Theaters, in addition to managing half a dozen other performance spaces across the U.S. After getting my own hometown's theater up and running, he moved onto to projects in Tacoma, Wash., Alaska, California, Georgia, Florida, and Kentucky.
So when I heard people begin to question Tomlinson's program choices for the Gaillard's first season earlier this year — Why aren't there more unique music acts? Where's the Broadway? — I figured the veteran director and producer would have a good reason.
"This year was very much 'take what's available,' partly because it was unknown to us when we'd actually be opening," Tomlinson explains. Though he arrived with plenty of time to book a traditional season, he says the city wouldn't allow him to move forward on scheduling shows until they knew the theater's exact opening date, and as we all know, that was a moving target.
"That got pushed all the way to October," he explains. "At that point, we were still asked not to make confirmed dates for attraction until much later. It was kind of tough to schedule this first year."
But Tomlinson says the Gaillard's staff has just begun planning next year's season and with plenty of time, things are looking good.
"Now we've got our Broadway shows lined up for next year, and there are some real gangbusters on single events," he says. Tomlinson wasn't at liberty to share the details, but says you won't see the same stuff you might find at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center (PAC).
"We don't have a lot of crossover in audience with the PAC," he explains. Prior to opening, Tomlinson says the Gaillard did a survey to determine the best programming for its audience. What the survey revealed is the Gaillard's attendees are predominately on the peninsula, Mt. Pleasant, and somewhat over into West Ashley. The group also skews older for symphony-goers and Broadway while its youngest attendees wanting to see dance. Of course, you can't discount the really young members. Last week the Center sold out Peppa Pig's Big Splash — a musical puppet version of the popular Nick Jr. TV show. Our photographer Jonathan Boncek attended with his daughter and confirms that for every four-year-old in the audience, there was a 30-something parent buying two glasses of wine.
Regardless of survey results, Tomlinson says his ultimate goal for scheduling comes down to offering the city unique options. "If we're doing something no one else is doing, people will come from all over to see it," he says. "We try to schedule things where acoustics is important since we're such an ideal setting. Unlike the PAC, if we cannot amplify it, we're better off. And were smaller. If artists and the agents are making a booking decision based on money, then they'll go to North Charleston. If they're making it on aesthetics or an artistic decision, I think they'll come to us."
One built-in audience he can count on is Spoleto. Like the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Spoleto is considered a resident company of the Gaillard Center and therefore gets first option on dates. This season the festival will be using the Gaillard for multiple shows including jazz artist Randy Weston, L.A. Dance Project, and, of course, festival centerpiece, Porgy & Bess — all chosen to showcase the theater's aforementioned and much raved about acoustics.
But a once-a-year 17-day festival won't be enough to put the $142 million center in the black. The success of the space relies on who and what Tomlinson brings in.
"We don't have that many dates available because of the symphony and other renters are in here so often," he says. The symphony has 26 weeks reserved for performances and rehearsals. "Squeezing a couple dozen of our own shows is very tricky." But Tomlinson adds, "I'm glad I have that problem instead of the other problem. In our first 30 days, we did 62 separate and distinct rental events." Yes, that includes both Peppa Pig and the Democratic Debate.
"We've been incredibly busy. Which is wonderful."