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Hall vs. Hall


by Jerome Weeks 28 Mar 2008

When the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, in its current form, was announced several years ago, one particular hitch was immediately apparent: how would a spanking new facility and presenting organization sit with the Dallas Summer Musicals? The DSM didn’t even join the founding organizations for the new center. Would the DCPA and the Summer Musicals […]

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Fair Park Music HallMargot and Bill Winspear Opera House

When the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, in its current form, was announced several years ago, one particular hitch was immediately apparent: how would a spanking new facility and presenting organization sit with the Dallas Summer Musicals? The DSM didn’t even join the founding organizations for the new center. Would the DCPA and the Summer Musicals actively compete for touring shows? Would Michael Jenkins, the Musicals’ president, be enticed to abandon the Musicals’ home in Fair Park Music Hall — or could he get the DCPA to join forces and let him present shows in both venues?

A WFAA story last night and a Dallas Morning News story this morning report that negotiations between the two groups have failed. Mayor Tom Leppert has been frustrated in his efforts at brokering some sort of compromise.

For now, both groups will compete for touring shows: The DCPA has hired Shorenstein Hays Nederlander as a consultant to bring touring musicals to the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House. Although DCPA spokeswoman Jill Magnuson is quoted as saying such competition will be healthy, Mr. Jenkins insists that there’s not enough stage product around for this to be a good situation. There won’t be more shows coming to Dallas, more theatergoers rushing to get seats. There’ll just be two groups splitting up what is available, “cannibalizing each other,” as Mr. Jenkins put it.

The situtation is not too dissimilar to the ones with Reunion Arena vs. the American Airlines Center and Casa Manana vs. Bass Hall in Fort Worth — although those face-offs were powered partly by a public vs. private struggle over control of the development future of downtown Dallas or downtown Fort Worth. And we know how billionaires tend to win those battles.

With the DCPA and the Summer Musicals, Dallas’ taxpayers are invested in both halls. The city owns the Music Hall, but supports the DCPA.

In effect, Dallas has two “arts districts”: Fair Park and the downtown area. Fair Park has enjoyed major improvements in recent years, but our national historic landmark is still seriously under-utilized — think: Cotton Bowl. And with all of the money and public attention going downtown these days — not just the DCPA but Victory Park and the new science museum headquarters nearby — Fair Park could, once again, be cast in the shade. There’s generally not enough control, not enough profit to be made, when an organization doesn’t own its building or have a contract that allows it to shape its own destiny — as at Fair Park. And the fact is that many Dallasites will probably never feel entirely comfortable about attending events at Fair Park as long as the surrounding neighborhood is seen as rundown and crime-ridden. In short, Fair Park may never succeed unless its neighborhood succeeds.

But the Summer Musicals is the closest thing this city has to a  revered cultural institution; if Dallasites can remain loyal to it through Starlight Express and Robert Goulet, it’s hard to see what could shake their faith. DCPA president Bill Lively has the money and the momentum, but the DPCA’s ambition is nothing less than re-shaping Dallas’ cultural life, making the still-lifeless-most-of-the-time Arts District the city’s magnetic hub at night. This will involve not just keeping those theaters filled but keeping people down there, long after the opening-day splendor of the new architecture has faded.

For theatergoers, the signal advantages of the Winspear Opera House are its size and (not yet existent) acoustics. At 2,300 seats, it is significantly more intimate than the Music Hall, which has more than 3,400 seats. The Music Hall’s size, layout and infamously dicey acoustics have gotten it called “an albatross” — and they’re a chief reason we have the DCPA in the first place, as an improved venue for the Dallas Opera, for one thing.

But those Winspear advantages will cost the typical audience member a hefty uptick in cash. It’s hard to turn a profit on touring shows when the venue has fewer than 2,500 seats or so. Which means tickets will cost a reported $75 average at the Winspear vs. $45 at the Summer Musicals.

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  • Carlo

    Whereas one needs to be mindful about having enough product for these venues, one needs to also consider if you will have enough audience. In Minneapolis/St.Paul per capita theatre attendance is at a very high 1.8, but theatres continue to struggle to draw audiences to fill their houses. Not enough demand to meet the supply. The organizational shakeout that follows this lack of balance between supply and demand typically doesn’t hurt the larger institutions but the smaller companies that regularly struggle to capture a small piece of marketshare. Today, even a company like the Twin Cities’ Tony award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune struggles to keep its doors open.