SKOWHEGAN — A local chamber of commerce official has a plan to revive the town’s opera house where nationally known artists once performed.
Artists Leon Russell, Ani DiFranco, Cowboy Junkies and Johnny Winter drew crowds, but also got the attention of the state Fire Marshal’s Office in 2009 and 2010.
The 851-seat Skowhegan Opera House, where the concerts drew 300-400 people per show, did not have a sprinkler system. And with no sprinkler system, there would be no more shows.
Since then, a $90,000 fire suppression system has been installed, but there have been far fewer concerts.
Cory King, executive director of the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce, said he has a plan to generate interest among local businesses to bring more shows to town.
“There’s no theater in the country that runs without season underwriters,” King said. “If we could approach businesses and say ‘Give us X amount of dollars and with that we’ll guarantee a show every month or every six weeks and you’ll get X amount of tickets and you’ll be on all the posters,’ promoters might be more willing to rent the space.”
The money would help offset the $400 rental per day for the opera house along with the hourly rate of an employee and overtime pay for a police officer.
“You’d start by talking to the promoters who once rented here and show that the risk will be a lot lower for them,” he said. “If I can put it on paper and present it to selectmen we can put together a working group to figure out how to best use that space.”
King is proposing his idea, because Town Manager John Doucette Jr. said his office cannot afford to do the work required to hire bands, book shows and sell tickets.
He said taxpayers should not be expected to pay more.
“They have to pay for the maintenance and the oil,” he said. “It’s not the municipality’s goal to go out and do promotions. It should be an outside entity; it’s there, it’s affordable to them at a reasonable cost.”
Opera house manager and executive secretary to the town manager Cara Mason said, “And basically, it’s the economy, too. Promoters are not pulling in the people they used to for the big names.”
Erik Thomas, owner of Sweet People Productions in Waterville, who promoted shows in Skowhegan, including Susan Tedeschi and Grammy-winning Shawn Colvin, said competition is tough these days for music venues.
“There’s a lot more competition in the state than there was back then,” Thomas said. “Now that the State Theater (in Portland) has reopened and all that’s going on up in Bangor, it’s a lot harder to get people to come out to Skowhegan for a show. It’s also harder to book the artists when they have those other options.”
He said the opera house in Skowhegan is a nice venue, but it is in a busy municipal building, which also houses the Police Department. He said the lighting in the opera house should be updated, and it’s inconvenient to haul the performer’s equipment in the facility’s passenger elevator.
“What really needs to happen is they need an opera house association like they have here in Waterville,” Thomas said. “If the people in Skowhegan want to see these acts, they need to get some sponsors and get some money together.”
That’s the idea, King said.
He said when the opera house has shows, such as comedian Bob Marley, who will be appearing March 23, and dance recitals by Dance Express in April and Sally’s Top Hat School of Dance and Bradley’s School of Dance in May, the whole town enjoys a financial boost.
“It’s great for businesses, it’s great for everybody,” he said. “It brings new dollars into our area and it’s a spirit thing. It’s a sense of pride that these cool things are happening in our community.”
King said if 10 businesses gave $2,000 each toward an opera house pool, it could be used as seed money to attract big names back to Skowhegan. Proceeds from the show would reseed the pot, he said.
“It’s such a wonderful venue, and it’s so positive for the whole county, for the whole region,” he said. “When we have concerts there, it’s not just Somerset County people; we pull people in from Bangor, from the coast, Waterville, Augusta, Brunswick. The more people that come into our town, the better it is for all of us.”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367