by Dave Gardner
The clanging of commerce can increasingly be heard within one of the region’s relatively quiet, but creative, economic sectors.
Erica Rogler, executive director of the Wyoming County Cultural Center at the Dietrich Theater, manages an arts organization situated at the gateway to the Endless Mountains in Tunkhannock. She fervently believes that the arts are a prime way to explore creativity, bring people together and foster growth both for the individual and the community.
At the center of these efforts is the stately Dietrich Theater. Built in 1936, the beautiful building succumbed to competition from big-box theaters and closed during 1987, but reopened in 2001 and now offers four separate screens with the biggest capable of seating more than 200 patrons.
The cultural center staff of 30 employees, plus a team of independent contractors, toil to bring in films that depict life around the world, plus offerings such as live comedy and reasonably-priced national theatre from Broadway. Additionally, the organization delivers a variety of shows that include, but are not limited to, music, sculpture and quilting.
“Because of the Dietrich there’s more economic activity in our downtown,” Rogler said.
According to Rogler, a recent economic prosperity study indicated that patrons of the Dietrich spend $31.47 per person beyond their admission ticket. More than 50 percent of the film viewers live outside Wyoming County, and many patronize restaurants, retailers and lodging facilities when they visit Tunkhannock.
“We serve more than 80,000 people per year, and are creating a total economic impact of $3.74 million annually,” she said.
She explained the biggest challenge facing the organization involves long-term sustainability. Debt must be paid down while always offering a movie or event experience that delivers friendliness, cleanliness and safety with a constant eye on intergenerational marketing.
“The biggest compliment I can hear is when people say I wish my community had this,” said Rogler. “There’s also nothing like seeing live comedy with a full house.”
Within Luzerne County, Will Beekman serves as executive director of the familiar F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. Dating back to 1938 when it was the Comerford Theater, the grand facility was greatly assisted by retailer Al Boscov in a renovation that led to a reopening 20 years ago as a center for various shows, and during the past five years has tripled its entertainment output.
“Our lights are on more than ever before, and do all this with the same staff we have had,” said Beekman. “We can’t do much more, and are averaging one show every three days as our people put in very long hours.”
He enthusiastically cited an economic impact study that credited the Kirby with an annual impact of $10 million as 87,000 visitors are served. Following the 2008 financial crash business at the theater did ebb, but new management approaches launched in 2010 proved successful and business has boomed.
“We have had fundraisers, more and modified events, and have taken a very hard look at the good and the bad shows,” said Beekman. “We also have adapted at various levels with our advertising and now use a mix that includes newspapers, digital and social media.”
The benefits to the downtown of Wilkes-Barre flowing from the Kirby are obvious. Providers of lodging, parking, taxis, Uber, food, beverages and retail shopping all benefit, and continue to prosper as the Kirby continues to refine its programming choices.
“People who say there’s nothing to do in NEPA drive me nuts,” said Beekman. “There are a wide variety of facilities like the Kirby all across the region.”
The Pocono Arts Council, with current executive director Susan Randall, can trace it roots to 1975 as the Monroe County Arts Council. Today, the organization serves as an umbrella organization for the arts within the counties of Pike, Wayne, Luzerne, Lackawanna and Monroe as it funnels grant money from Harrisburg for cultural events from music to dance to poetry readings.
“Our goal is to serve, educate and promote the community artistically and culturally as we provide opportunities for artists,” said Randall. “Culture helps a community thrive and as a grant coordinator we achieve big impacts with state money.”
According to Randall, during 2019 more than 50 organizations will receive revenues courtesy of the council. She cited the huge challenge of completing this work on a shoestring with a skeleton staff, and admitted that overall grant dollars can be hard to come by.
“Remember, this is not life and death we are dealing with,” said Randall. “But, state funding is relatively steady, and for that we are thankful.”
Tassy Glibert, the council’s administrative assistant, noted that for 2019 almost $50,000 will pass though the organization for one type of grant. Examples of the cultural events being assisted include the Annual Bonfire at the Scranton Iron Furnaces, a show at the Sordoni Art Gallery and the East Stroudsburg High School musical.
“There are a wide array of community-based events we support,” said Gilbert. “Another type of funding stream goes to organizations such as the Scranton City ballet. This is all topsoil on the cultural garden.”
The Broadway Theatre of Northeastern Pennsylvania, established in 1959, has capitalized on the reality that the Scranton market is fairly close to New York City as a wide variety of shows visit the Scranton Cultural Center. Frank Blasi, executive director, works with a Binghamton-based booking agent known as NAC Entertainment to bring in the shows which perform up to a full week with each booking.
“These shows generally move around the country working larger to smaller markets, and Scranton is a third tier,” said Blasi. “During 2018 we have 21 shows booked, and will finish with a total budget of $1 million to $1.5 million.”
Most of these shows bring all of their equipment in trucks. Local spending is then needed to hire union stagehands along with an assortment of electricians, carpenters and specific theater gear such as updated spotlights.
Paying for the shows is Blasi’s biggest outlay as each booking receives a guaranteed payment up front that easily can exceed $100,000. Royalties may also have to be paid, and in addition, attendance more than 70 percent guarantees the show an additional payment from each ticket.
“Local media with advertising is another big area of our spending, and all of this money comes through the cultural center,” said Blasi.
The league has forged a strategic alliance with eight regional restaurants for theater patrons to receive a 10 percent discount. Scranton’s plush POSH restaurant also serves as a strategic resource by offering its ballroom for league catering events, such as each show’s cast party for sponsors and the donors, as the Hilton and Radisson Hotels house the performers.
“We’d like to find that saturation point for shows here,” said Blasi. “Some shows are physically too big for our stage and we would like to address the physical limits of the facility.”
Albert Nocciolino, president and CEO of NAC Entertainment, a Tony Award winner, commented that as an industry the theater business hasn’t properly communicated the value of arts to the community. He noted American society, to a large degree for the last 25 years, has focused big on the sports world and constructed grand stadiums to house professional franchises.
Yet, within New York City, more people attend Broadway shows than professional sports events. These patrons spend an enormous amount of money on the streets for lodging, food, beverages, parking and lodging.
“Meanwhile, spending for sports is only within the stadium,” said Nocciolino. “It is therefore safe to say that the patrons of the shows are better spenders overall.”
He also reported that as society evolves the landscape is changing. Broadway shows on the road are showing tremendous growth as new theater construction and renovations occur across the country in urban locations, with millions of dollars being spent on each.
Nocciolino also commented that a budget-starved community which cuts school funding for the arts in favor of preserving sports is participating in a criminal act. Virtually all behavioral specialists agree that kids who participate in the arts develop a better focus, improved self-confidence and personal growth that’s important to their well-being.
“Shame on the schools who cut back on the arts,” said Nocciolino. “All kids need to be engaged and as they become occupied their self-confidence grows. Most parents do seem to understand this.”