Arts & Entertainment - May 18, 2011

Menlo Park's theatrical experiment

City sponsors events at Performing Arts Center

by Sandy Brundage

Postcards advertising musicians and comedians popped up in Menlo Park postboxes recently, bearing the city's logo in the bottom right corner.

It turns out the city is experimenting with a new model for using the Performing Arts Center at Menlo-Atherton High School, according to Recreation Services Manager Katrina Whiteaker. She said the city is working with a production agency — identified as Prime Time Entertainment on the postcards — that provides sound equipment, event coordination, and staffing.

Ms. Whiteaker described the city's financial commitment as "minimal marketing" and the facility itself. If revenue from the event exceeds a certain threshold, she said, the city receives a cut to cover costs.

The Menlo Park City Council in 2007 approved a $2.6 million payment toward construction of the center, guaranteeing the city rent-free use of the center for 55 days during the school year and unlimited use during school vacations. However, the city must pay labor costs, starting at $80 per hour, for custodial and theater management services.

The first two events are singer George Komsky on Saturday, May 21, and comedian Will Durst on Saturday, June 25. Tickets cost $25 and $20, respectively.

For an event like the concert, Ms. Whiteaker said, with 14 hours of theater time needed, including set-up, the city would pay $1,120. If all 492 tickets sold, sales would generate $12,300 and Menlo Park would collect 15 percent, or approximately $1,845 to cover expenses.

So far the trial program isn't a booming success — Mr. Komsky's show has been canceled, despite selling out theaters in Walnut Creek and San Francisco, according to Jim Douglas of Primetime Entertainment.

"What really needs to happen is to establish a decent-sized marketing budget, and get a series in place," he said. "You invest all that money on the front end, it only makes sense to invest enough resources to make it fly."

Calling the cancelation of the first event "frustrating," Mr. Douglas said it also showed what needs to happen to make future bookings a success, with tweaks such as a user-friendly ticket website; developing a database of ticket buyers; marquee names — and a marquee to advertise the show, as the one at Menlo-Atherton High was unavailable.

Theater manager Cara Arcuni confirmed that the high school didn't allow the shows to be advertised on its marquee, because the display is created by video production students and a teacher that are "completely booked making displays for school events." She said the city has booked the center for 27 days so far this school year.


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