Uncertain Future for Iroquois Amphitheater

by ekramer on July 27, 2009

Since 1938, the Iroquois Amphitheater’s history has included periods of neglect and success. The latter includes a nearly $9 million renovation eight years ago. Now, the economy has driven its major user — Music Theater Louisville — to perform at the Kentucky Center. That and other factors make an uncertain future for the amphitheater. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

Music Theatre Louisville’s production of Singin’ in the Rain nearly filled the 600 seats in the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater during every performance of its recent nine-day run.

But this wasn’t the idea State Senator Dan Seum had in mind years ago when he got $4.2 million in the state budget to help renovate the South End’s Iroquois Amphitheater. Seum says as a South End resident he knew many people in the community wanted to see the structure renovated and used. He says the city had promised to help pay for it with one condition.

“The challenge came back down from city hall, specifically from Mayor Abramson, that if you want this amphitheater are you prepared to come up with half the money,” Seum recalls. “And I shocked them; I did.”

The city did match the state funding and in 2003 the amphitheater opened with its primary user, Music Theatre Louisville, returning to the stage.

Meanwhile, the city’s parks department wanted to boost activity at the 2,400-seat venue that was built by the Works Progress Administration and has featured the talents of Louisville citizens for decades. They also wanted to generate revenue to support it. Clay Campbell had worked with the department before taking a job with Triangle Talent, an entertainment agency known for booking shows at state fairs and other events nationwide.

Campbell says he knew the place.

“It’s a great facility. It has all of the potential in the world,” Campbell says.”And we could see that people were struggling with it and thought that maybe we could help.”

So, in 2006, the city signed a three-year contract with Triangle Talent and paid the agency nearly $385,000 to manage and book the facility. During that time the agency did book two nationally known acts — the band Wilco and “Weird Al” Yankovic. But by 2008 that arrangement wasn’t bringing in much revenue, says Metro Parks director Mike Heitz.

“We thought that relationship with promoters is one that would help us,” Heitz says, “but it just didn’t develop that way.”

What did develop was a recession producing declining public revenues. It caused Metro Parks not to renew its contract with Triangle Talent and raise rental fees to unaffordable rates for Music Theatre Louisville.

Now, with half the summer season over, Metro Parks still does not have a plan for programming at the amphitheater next year. MTL leaders have encouraged the city to create programming that includes other city arts organizations and rally the public and private business to make it happen. It’s almost as if the amphitheater is starting all over again.

Such a project is something managers of the country’s few small municipally owned amphitheaters understand. Susanna Nierman O’Neil of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, is one of them. For more than 20 years, she has overseen the management of the city’s amphitheater in Cain Park.

O’Neil remembers when it got a roof and reopened after a $5 million overhaul.

“We needed to have a vision for where we were going,” O’Neil says. “So, we started this plan: if we a roof on the amphitheater and then we mix and match with jazz, dance, local talent, and also at least four big-named acts, we figured we would be able to make it.”

She says the amphitheatre is operating this year with a $650,000 budget that includes $200,000 from the city and the rest from revenues.

Meanwhile in Louisville, the current city budget has $200,000 for Metro Parks to use for Iroquois Amphitheater. The city’s been giving tours to representatives from local arts groups.

Metro Park’s Mike Heitz.

“The ballet’s been there recently and looked at it,” Heitz says. “They really liked it. I think they’re going to booking some dates with us.”

Still, those dates might not include Music Theatre Louisville. Its executive director, Peter Holloway, says the company is working to keep its costs down as the recession has lowered its revenues. But he, like so many others, wants to see action on the amphitheater’s stage next summer.

“I just want to see the thing utilized and do well,” Holloway says. “And if that ends up having us be a part of it, that’s great. And if it doesn’t and it still works out well at the amphitheater, that’d be fine, too.”

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