Copyright 2010 Ben S. Pollock
DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — I grabbed a take-out coffee from Common Grounds and headed across Fayetteville’s Dickson Street to the rose garden of the current Walton Arts Center. I sat on the terraced brick wall, waiting for my client-friend Crystal Britches, and shivered. The flower bushes were faded, matching the mood.
“Hon’, it just turned winter. Let’s take the coffee back inside,” Crystal said, walking through the gate. She had a cup, too.
“In a while, Boss. This amphitheater garden helps form my thoughts about the Fayetteville municipal auditorium moving. Will you be warm enough?”
Crystal Britches grinned. Under her infamous plastic gear, she wore woolly gray leggings and a red Razorback hoodie. Ms. Britches is a Fayetteville millionaire. Though opinionated, she’s more of a watcher than a joiner. She is remarkably fit for her age, from ballroom dancing. Under the radar I advise her on journalism and public relations. Her philanthropy is known only to nonprofit administrators as she gives anonymously. Her ego is not dependent on being seen in newspaper or local magazine Society Pages. This is a theater column so let’s call it a preference to work behind the scenes.
“Noah Vale, I’ve been away since Thanksgiving, but I have been keeping up online with the town theater and how it’s going to move to Bentonville. The Fayetteville City Council vote last night clinched it. The officials and the university say it seems unseemly, if legally correct, to sue a volunteer board of directors, but it’s the individual directors that intimidate them. It only makes sense if you don’t think about it.”
“I know. The city and UA, taxpayers and private contributors, all four teamed up to build the complex of three theaters, gallery and teaching-studio, give or take 20 years ago. The Walton family was the naming-rights main benefactor. The area’s population has been moving north toward Bentonville, but more than that the power is up there. That makes moving the center nearly inevitable.”
“It’s ironic, though, Noah. Benton County is so conservative. What would be more hypocritical than a public performing arts facility up there? Theaters haven’t been run on a business model in decades; not even executives often could afford tickets without underwriting. And the residents may not appreciate how so many of the shows feature dancing girls, dirty jokes and cuss words.”
“Or it might be right up the Republicans’ alley. Crystal, I thought you would’ve flown back from the Riviera for the fight. Fayetteville has legal ground, public-record documentation. At the least money should trade hands. And where are people going to eat before shows up there, then buy desserts and drinks afterward?
“Fayetteville just a couple of months ago opened Iams Dog Park off Wedington Drive. I take Mani the Tibetan terrier there. It reminds me of how Fayetteville acts. The dogs play, sure, but they’re really figuring out dominance. Mani chases after some dogs, not others. It’s not based on size but aggressiveness. Between the WAC and the School Board’s anti-growth choice to stay with one large high school and not two medium-size dynamic ones like the other three main cities here, Fayetteville throughout seems to be rolling on its back, exposing its belly.”
“Mr. Vale, building an auditorium twice the size of this will take them five or 10 years. If Wal-Mart Stores moves ‘corporate’ to Dallas, the center may not be feasible any longer. They won’t do that, of course. Wal-Mart may be a multinational corporation, but when it gives its word it stands by — sorry, hon’, sometimes I can’t help myself.”
“Theaters may not be much of a business, but they can be run with efficiency,” I said. “The question is how many nights a year does an auditorium need to be rented out to approach a break-even. You can fill a 2,200-seat auditoirum with a Wedding Singer or Young Frankenstein for a two-night run selling most tickets at $75, in prosperous Northwest Arkansas, or four nights in the current 1,200-seat house right here. They didn’t bother to open the balcony a few weeks ago for author Bill Bryson. I guess that’s the kind of show that will stay in Fayetteville, otherwise, he’d be put in the lobby of the proposed digs with 600 folding chairs.”
“There might be more people on the Walton Arts Center board of directors than attend some of their shows,” Crystal cracked. There’s two boards, together with nearly 30 members. The size of the staff makes the facility one of the biggest employers downtown.
Crystal laughed. “If all they want is the room for circus acts, let them show Legally Blonde every year and Cats. Fayetteville still can host in the current hall David Sedaris and other monologists, and Chick Corea and the other jazz greats, and Second City improv, and Pilobulus and other dance troupes.”
I patted the red bricks. “Yes, even if this one gets renamed Wilberforce Arts Center. I would drive to Bentonville for Blue Man Group. And eat at a chain restaurant up there,” I said.
“Son, I love The Theatah. But I love YouTube and Netflix, too. Stage performances are like the newspaper industry. They’ll be around in some form forever. They seem to be gearing toward ever-more-exclusive markets and priced accordingly, but even that is no certainty. The Britches household subscribes to your paper — my servants, after they clear away my breakfast and start the laundry, split the sections then trade — but I pay only for three months at a time.
“I’m a Warren Buffett-like investor. A building lasts a long time, and you can’t turn an auditorium into a real-estate office when the novelty of near-arena-size performances wears off and benefactors look to other projects to glorify themselves.”
“Crystal, as one of your consultants, I advise you to look at the bright side. Dickson Street now won’t need a parking deck, so downtown metered street and lot parking that started last summer to pay for one, to hold theater crowds, now may be yanked.”
“There is no such thing as free parking,” Crystal Britches said, raising her fist, “except when there is!”