June 11--Vince Paul, the president and artistic director of Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, is coming up on his eighth anniversary as the head of the storied downtown theater.
Music Hall's creative metabolism has quickened considerably under Paul. Where it was once active roughly 100 nights a year, it's now open about 300 nights between its 1,700-seat main stage, the cozy Jazz Cafe and its new rooftop bar called 3Fifty Terrace, which is home to DJ parties and the like. The eclectic programming encompasses all manner of theater, dance and music, offering national bookings, local performers, rentals and a few top-to-bottom Music Hall productions. About 200,000 patrons come through the doors each year, while its education programs reach 22,000 kids annually in Detroit. The theater has run modest surpluses the past four years on a budget of $5 million to $6 million. But cash flow is tight, as it still carries $4 million in debt left over from the recession.
On the plus side, where Music Hall's budget used to be 30% earned and 70% contributed, it's now roughly the opposite thanks to Paul-led entrepreneurial initiatives like its large streaming video sign and other banner advertising, which earns high six figures each year, and the 3Fifty Terrace, which can gross $25,000 on a good Saturday.
On the cusp of Friday's Cars & Stars gala with Michael Bolton -- the venue's signature annual fund-raiser -- Paul, 50, spoke about the theater's mission, impact and history dating to 1928.
QUESTION: What is Music Hall's niche in Detroit's cultural ecosystem?
ANSWER: Our programming is incredibly diverse. The National Arab Orchestra is our resident orchestra. One night you're going to have a Bollywood show and the next night "Fela!" or Latino culture. We're serving all kinds of people with all kinds of culture. Even the 3Fifty Terrace clearly skews to 21- to 35-year-olds, the younger demographic. We've spent millions investing in the younger demographic. I can't save the older people. But I sure as hell can carefully curate and consider the next generation.
There's a bigger-picture message. The performing arts are an excellent vehicle for education and awareness. If you curate your programming correctly, you have hundreds of thousands of people coming and going, and you have people's attention for a short period of time. What do you want to say? If you're clever, you can say something that will resonate and improve lives. It's not a lecture; you're wrapping it in a show like "Fela!" (the musical based on the life of Nigerian singer Fela Kuti). There are all kinds of social messages there. Two years later people still thank me and say "I learned so much; we're not that different after all."
Q: So yours is a diversity and youth niche?
A: Yes. It's unifying our community. That is to say, Oakland University's theater department performed "Carrie" in downtown Detroit in January. Unheard of. Would never have happened in the past. Never. Those kids were delighted. Those kids were the ones who pushed the project through. Lord knows we didn't have support from faculty, deans and that kind of thing. They were like, "Detroit? We need security guards." But those students were not having it: "We want to perform in a professional theater in downtown Detroit in a city." They got their way. It was coupled with a high school assembly program on bullying, which ran for almost two months. Every single high school in the city of Detroit had the Music Hall program on bullying.
Q: With so much diversity, how do you project a unified vision and profile?
A: I hope that we are known as a home for artists. If you have something to say, we would hope you would think of Music Hall as a place where you can get in front of people. The door is open. We work on the People's Theatre Program, where we provide the Music Hall rent-free. Sometimes we'll even pay for lights and sound and some stage hands. Next year we're holding a lottery for two all-expenses-paid presentations, one in the Jazz Cafe and one in the main hall. You don't have to go to Chicago or Toronto to perform. It is doable here. There are a multitude of venues, and Music Hall is one of them.
Q: Your relationship with Detroit is critical, right?
A: Yes. I link myself with the city of Detroit -- 100%. If Detroit is a bummer, then I'm a bummer too. If it's great, then I'm great. None of us can live up to our capacities unless the city of Detroit is open for business, safe and awesome. The city has made awesome strides in the last few years. I can see it in sales.
Q: What's your greatest asset?
A: The building -- with a bullet. This is a national legend. Nobody has presented the sheer volume of performing arts legends -- Lucille Ball, W.C. Fields, and on and on -- and it's getting cooler as it gets older. Every year that goes by it becomes more profound. It's the real deal. Every seat is the same seat. We reupholstered it, but it's the same seat.
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