BWW Interviews: The Man Behind The McCallum Theatre: A Conversation with Incoming President and CEO Mitch Gershenfeld
The McCallum Theatre, the Coachella Valley's premiere theatrical venue, celebrates its 25th Anniversary Season with a star-studded lineup of Classical Music, Jazz, Cabaret, Comedy and a Broadway Blockbuster Series which includes Rock of Ages, Dreamgirls and West Side Story. The McCallum Theatre opened its doors on January 2, 1988 with a gala performance honoring Bob Hope that was nationally televised. Since then The McCallum has been the Coachella Valley's mecca for world-class entertainment including an extensive array of Broadway and Cabaret offerings. The man behind the tremendous success of the McCallum's eclectic performance calendar for the past thirteen years is Mitch Gershenfeld, Director of Presentations and Theatre Operations, who will take the helm as the theatre's President and CEO beginning June 1. I had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Gershenfeld as he begins preparations for The McCallum's exciting Silver Anniversary Season. Gershenfeld is warm, passionate, highly astute, a performing arts afficionado and a genuinely kind man. Here are a few highlights from that conversation.
DG: So, how long have you been affiliated with The McCallum Theatre?
MG: I have been here for twelve years. So this coming season is my 13th season and the theatre's 25th anniversary. I started here in 2000. And, of course, this will be my first season as the President and CEO.
DG: Where did you come from? What is your background?
MG: Before I came here I ran a Performing Arts Center in the San Diego area for three years. I was in Denver for a number of years running a couple of different venues. I was the music producer for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. I had been the Pops Director for the Atlanta Symphony prior to the Olympics. I started out as a musician – I was a professional musician for ten years and I played in Symphony Orchestras and I taught at The University of Wisconsin in Madison, so I've done the teaching thing and the musician-performing thing. I have also played in some Broadway road companies – I was lucky enough to play in the first road company of CHICAGO with Jerry Orbach and Gwen Verdon. Actually, I played three times as long as the show lasted on Broadway. I did the incredible flop that was written by Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner called 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE. I was in that orchestra in its tryouts in Philadelphia for a month. So, played studio work – played symphony work – then got into the Management side of things.
DG: What do you find to be unique about the audiences out here in The Coachella Valley?
MG: This is an incredible audience. First of all, you have so many people that are here during the season that have the resources to see performances anywhere they want to see them – I mean, if they want to see Broadway shows they can go to New York or they can go to London – if they want to see Opera they can travel to see the best. I think our audience has very high expectations. Fortunately, I think, our audience, for large measure, has resources that allow us to bring in fairly substantial artists into a very small auditorium – it's only 1100 seats – and I think the level of talent you see here you normally see in venues two or three times our size. So, that I think is unique. Our audience has very high expectations and we have to work very hard to serve that audience. We also have the broader community – the people who are here year-round – and we certainly reach out to that audience and we try to make things affordable; we try to do different kinds of things that appeal to different audiences. I think it's a unique combination and I think we have a really fantastic audience. In 2008-2009 during the financial crisis a lot of theatres were seeing their attendance reduced by as much as fifty percent. That season we only had about a three percent decline in our attendance. Our audience has always been here and been supportive. I think it's a great market.
DG: Is much of The McCallum Theatre audience subscription based?
MG: No. Well, we do subscriptions but actually subscriptions count for less than a third of our total ticket sales. It's because we have such a transient population. People come here for a week, a month, three months, whatever and so to ask people to commit to an entire six month time period doesn't really work in the traditional sense of the subscription which is why we do the "create your own menu" and these sorts of things. The traditional subscription model doesn't really apply here.
DG: How do you go about selecting a season and who does that?
MG: Well, that's me. I've been booking the shows for twelve years. There are certain things that you have to take into consideration. First is the calendar. I can't do things in the summer. I can't so things really in the off-season except for certain things that would appeal to the market we have locally. But when you're talking about Broadway shows which we really need the high-season audience to support them – and when you're talking about some other seasoned entertainers – we really have to fit an entire season into a very concentrated time period. So, particularly with the Broadway shows a lot of it is dependent on when the shows are touring and when the shows are going to be in Southern California. These are national tours and they're going all across the country and they travel with a number of trucks and a large amount of personnel and they will come through this area at certain times of the years and we look at that – can we fit it into our calendar. And then it's obviously we want to get the biggest shows we can – the best shows we can. Generally we start getting the shows at the tail end of the Equity tour or at the front end of the non-equity tour. The non-Equity casts and productions, I think, have proven to be in general, depending on the producer, very, very strong and compare very favorably to the Equity tours. I mean, we had the Equity tour of Mamma Mia and we had the non-Equity tour of My Fair Lady and I think that the productions were comparable in quality. So those are really the things, in terms of Broadway, that really define the season that we can get. Everything else, it's simply a matter of being in touch with agents and management as far as when artists are touring and then selecting artists we know we want to bring in and trying to reach out to them and see if we can make it work. We try to do a little bit of everything. We know our audience. There are artists that are favorites and will play either every year or every other year. We love the fact that The McCallum can be that artists' home when they're here in the desert. And that ranges from Broadway people like Mandy Patinkin, Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters to comedians like Kathy Griffin who really love playing The McCallum.
DG: I was excited to see Pink Martini on your season.
MG: Pink Martini. I'm excited about that too. I've been trying to get Pink Martini for a long time and, even though it's early in our season (September) it's actually as late as they've toured in a few years – usually they're touring in July and August and we can't book them. And we're opening our season earlier than we ever have because we have the opportunity to bring Steve Martin here and it was like – well do you want to open August 31st? For Steve Martin, yes!
DG: What are you most excited about next season?
MG: You know, I'm really excited – we have some artists that I've been trying to get for years and we've finally been able to get. Yo-Yo Ma. I am really thrilled we have Yo-Yo Ma. Also, the recital with Renee Fleming and Susan Graham. I'm really thrilled to be working with Steve Martin. I'm real happy that we have the Ten Tenors back – they're really great – from Australia – we did them a couple of years ago for three nights and people were saying "that's not gonna sell .. how are you gonna make that work?" and I said just wait, people are gonna respond. And they did and we sold out three shows and people were going crazy over these guys. I'm glad we were able to bring them back. The fun thing is a combination of things that have played here in the past – I mean, we have The Alvin Ailey Dance Company that was here on the very first night the theatre had a public performance. Part of that show was Alvin Ailey. And so to have them back here for the 25th season, I think, is very special. And, the Broadway season -- West Side Story is one of my favorite musicals – I think it one of the best scores ever written for a Broadway show. This is the new version, partially in Spanish. I think that's very interesting. And, I love the opportunity to, like we did this year with In The Heights, bring in a musical that not many people really knew too much about – but I think people really embraced it. We had great crowds, And, I think Rock Of Ages is going to be the same way --- very different kind of musical. But the movie is coming out and so I think audiences will embrace it. It's nice to get things that are new. You know, the tried and true – West Side Story and Beauty and The Beast, it's nice to get those – but something that is a little less known in fun as well.
The 25th Anniversary Season kicks off on August 31 with Steve Martin. For further information or to purchase tickets for any of the McCallum's Silver Annivesary Season performances call The McCallum Theatre at (760) 340-ARTS or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com