By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
©St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 1993
Later this month, Ruth Eckerd Hall opens its 10th anniversary
season with a concert by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Also
on the docket for 1993-94 are the likes of Midori and Kenny Rogers,
Guys and Dolls and Porgy and Bess, Alvin Ailey American Dance
Theatre, Tom Jones and the Vienna Choir Boys.
Today, audiences in the Tampa Bay area pretty much take for
granted that they will be able to see a wide range of touring
classical and pop artists. But it wasn't necessarily so before
the arrival of Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Just ask the woman for whom the hall was named. "There
really was nothing to speak of" when it came to performing
arts in the area, Ruth Eckerd said recently. "It was pretty
barren territory. The only way you could see what you wanted
to see was to go to New York."
She remembers the first time she saw the 38-acre tract donated
for the hall by the Baumgardner family, which owned the nearby
Kapok Tree Inn on McMullen-Booth Road in Clearwater. "It
was open land," she said. "We got to it by going down
a little path through palmettos."
Ruth's husband, Jack Eckerd, retired chief executive of the
drugstore chain that bears his name, is the largest single donor
to the performing arts center, having given more than $2-million.
It was real estate developer Al Hoffman, the first board chairman
of PACT, the non-profit organization that runs the hall, who
suggested that it be named after Ruth. "I'd had 1,500 stores
named for me and a college, so I thought it was high time for
my wife," Jack said.
Ruth said people are frequently surprised to discover who
she is. "Prior to this hall being named for me, I was always
Jack Eckerd's wife," she said.
The Eckerds are familiar faces at the hall. "We probably
go once or twice a week," Ruth said. "I love ballet,
and Jack hates it, but he's been very dear about going with me.
I think he's even beginning to like it."
Only once did Ruth and Jack pointedly express displeasure
with something presented at the hall. They walked out of Torch
Song Trilogy, Harvey Fierstein's play about a drag queen. "It
just did not appeal to us," Ruth said. "We realized
as soon as we were there that it was not something we would enjoy."
"That was one time out of hundreds," Jack said.
For Ruth, a highlight occurred 10 years ago this month when
the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony -- now the Florida Orchestra
-- played during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. "The thing that
sticks out the most was when they struck up The Star-Spangled
Banner," she said. "That was a very weepy time for
me, a very thrilling moment."
Managers of halls tend to have different sorts of memories.
Arnold Breman, the first executive director of PACT, recently
recounted a string of near disasters that occurred during his
tenure behind the scenes.
For example, Ruth Eckerd Hall is lauded for its design, but
Breman remembers an occasion when the fine acoustics were a problem.
"There was a night when a cricket chirped along with Itzhak
Perlman on the violin, and it almost killed the concert. The
sound of the cricket sailed around the hall just like the sound
of the violin. That was an unnerving night."
Breman managed Ruth Eckerd Hall from 1980 -- when construction
contracts were signed -- until leaving in 1989 to run the Kravis
Center for the Performing Arts, which opened last year in West
Palm Beach. He now is a consultant and lives in Jupiter.
He talks about his years at Ruth Eckerd Hall with pride. "We
worked very hard, spent a lot of time out in the community, working
the rubber chicken circuit," he said. "It was hard
because there was a tremendous amount of skepticism about what
the hall would do or whether it would be for everyone. I remember
there was an article in the St. Petersburg Times where somebody
called it the millionaires' sandbox. Everybody was afraid it
would be a toy for the very wealthy."
The charge of elitism was overcome by getting people involved
with the hall, in part through memberships that cost as little
as $25 a year and provide priority in ticket purchases. "Ruth
Eckerd has 10,000 members now, probably one of the largest memberships
in the U.S.," Breman said. "Not only does that sell
a lot of tickets, but it also builds a relationship to the community.
People feel that they're part of the center. You can't just build
a hall and say, well, here we are, look at us. I think that's
what happened in Tampa, where there wasn't as much community
work done when the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center was built.
Nobody's going to come to a hall unless they feel involved with
Ruth Eckerd Hall cost about $15-million, and PACT raised more
than half the amount. The rest, $5.5-million, was borrowed. Paying
off that mortgage has proved to be troublesome over the last
decade, a period when artists' fees skyrocketed and audience
tastes were changing. Today, the mortgage balance is $4.5-million.
"The one mistake PACT made was to go in with a mortgage,"
Bremen said. "That was an absolute killer. There should
have been a harder campaign to pay off that $5.5-million up front,
but we weren't thinking in that direction. We were thinking of
getting the hall open, making it happen, and I applaud that.
But the mortgage hurt us because we were paying a fortune in
debt service. As artists' fees got higher and higher, it made
a difference. If you asked me what I would do differently if
we were starting all over again, it would be to make sure the
building opened debt-free."
Ruth Eckerd Hall no longer has the cultural market to itself.
The Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center is celebrating its fifth
anniversary, and the renovated Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg
is starting to present programing on its own. Despite the competition,
the Clearwater hall has fared well. The budget of more than $8-million
has been balanced in each of the last four years, and paid attendance
in 1992-93 was 83 percent of capacity.
Elissa O. Getto, who was named executive director in 1989,
believes a key factor in the hall's success was the development
of a regional audience. "The first year or two, we were
largely a North Pinellas hall," she said. "Now, on
any given night, 20 percent of the audience will be from Hillsborough."
In the beginning, Ruth Eckerd Hall's location was considered
something of a handicap. Driving there from middle and lower
Pinellas usually entailed a trip on busy U.S. 19. With the opening
this year of the Bayside Bridge, the hall is suddenly much easier
to reach from the south.
Getto doesn't think the programing has turned notably conservative.
"Ten years ago, who was the up-and-coming violinist? It
was Itzhak Perlman, and the hall presented him," she said.
"Now the hot violinist is Midori, and she'll be here this
She acknowledges that classical music and dance can be risky
to present and makes no apology for booking popular performers.
"All we are is a reflection of the culture at large,"
she said. "The mainstream is going to keep changing, and
we better keep up with it."
Getto sees country singers along the lines of Mary-Chapin
Carpenter and Lyle Lovett appearing more often at the hall. "You
get a very different feeling when you hear Mary-Chapin Carpenter
in a 2,000-seat hall with very little amplification," she
said. "You have an experience in a concert hall that you
can't get in an arena."
The wave of the future in classical music and dance could
involve the hall in commissioning works and establishing artists-in-residence
programs. Last season, Ruth Eckerd Hall teamed up with the University
of Florida to commission choreographer David Parsons to create
a dance. It was titled Bachiana and received its premiere at
the hall. In February, Dave Brubeck is scheduled to perform a
composition commissioned by the hall.
"That's part of the challenge
of the next 10 years," Getto said. "We can help foster
new art through commissions."
updated story on 2/5/2010 - Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall
ranked best little venue in the world!