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'Produced by Contemporary' is a history of St. Louis rock concerts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 17, 2008 - A contract for U2's 1981 concert at Washington University's Graham Chapel, for which the group was paid $750; Guns N' Roses' contract for the 1991 concert at Riverport that erupted into a riot; photos, ticket stubs, backstage passes, posters, video clips and all manner of memorabilia: All are part of the exhibit "Jazz, Rock, and Soul: 40 Years of Music in St. Louis, 1968-2008" at the Sheldon Art Galleries.

Much of that material belongs to Steve Schankman, president of Contemporary Productions, who with former St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer and editor Dick Richmond, penned the new book "Produced by Contemporary: A Celebration of 40 Years Producing Stellar Concerts and Spectacular Events."

Schankman will give a gallery talk about the exhibit, his book and his years of producing entertainment events at the Sheldon on Oct. 21. The exhibit runs through Feb. 7, 2009. 

"There was no real plan," Schankman says of the company he formed with schoolmate Irv Zuckerman in 1968. "We just kept booking bands. We expanded from Missouri to 10 other states. We had all the great bands for high schools and colleges, and the ones that would book national acts, we would do that, too."

The turning point for the fledgling company came in 1973 when Frank Barsalona, a powerful talent agent who represented some of the biggest bands of the day, decided to throw his business to Contemporary, a move that put them on the map for good.

"It was good timing, good luck, good fortune and a good idea," Schankman says. "We became concert promoters."

Sometimes, his status as a musician himself - the son of a St. Louis Symphony violinist and grandson of a bugler for the Russian Czar, Schankman grew up playing trumpet in various local bands - gave him special standing with the bands he promoted.

A 1970 concert by the band Chicago was nearly cancelled due to problems beyond Contemporary's control, but when Schankman saw trumpet player Lee Loughnane backstage, he engaged him in a conversation about the instrument. When the band discovered the promoter was also a fellow musician, they decided to play the show anyway.

Among Contemporary's key concerts during its first decade were Superjam at Busch Stadium in 1976 - the first stadium show in St. Louis since the Beatles in 1966 - and 1978's Rolling Stones show at Kiel Opera House.

"Somebody asked me today, 'If you could replay a concert, which one would you like to see?'" Schankman says. "[The Stones] would be one of them, because I didn't see any of the show that night -- or many other nights for that matter. My job was never to attend the concert for viewing, but to attend the concert to handle the financial end or whatever else I had to handle."

Over the years, Contemporary expanded into a number of other areas, including managing area bands Head East and Starcastle, booking major acts for corporate clients, and promoting motorsports events; i.e. mud races and monster trucks.

The company was also instrumental in putting musical acts together with corporate sponsors - something that today is a given, but was still a new concept when Contemporary paired The Who with Schlitz beer and Barry Manilow with Fox Photo.

"It struck me years and years ago," Schankman says. "Why can't we put these artists in the boardrooms to help sell product? I pictured Barry Manilow sitting in the boardroom at Fox Photo trying to show them how, by using Barry Manilow, we could sell more film. Or Kenny Rogers with Jovan, who had a perfume called "The Gambler."

Another innovation was Contemporary's formation of Dial Tix and Capital Tickets to take ticket orders over the phone.

Stunning to anyone who has bought a ticket by phone or online lately and paid the sometimes exorbitant processing fees is the fact that the initial service fee for Dial Tix was only 25 cents.

"But you have to remember that the average ticket price at the time was $6 or $7," Schankman says.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Contemporary's long run was the creation of Riverport Amphitheatre in Maryland Heights. The venue opened in June of 1991 with Steve Winwood and Robert Cray. But only two weeks later, a Guns N' Roses concert escalated into a riot when singer Axl Rose tangled with a motorcycle gang in the audience and left the stage prematurely.

"It was something that didn't need to happen," Schankman says. "Nobody anticipated it happening. If he had returned to the stage and continued to sing some songs, I think everybody would have been OK. But the anticipation that the show was going to continue, and then it didn't, plus the presence of security ... see, that's the whole thing: Our job was to protect the artist. When you get an artist like Axl Rose, how are you going to protect him? He's the problem, not the audience."

The amphitheatre and Contemporary recovered from the incident and prospered through much of the '90s. But when an offer to buy the company came from concert behemoth SFX in 1997, Schankman and Zuckerman took it.

"It wasn't really the money," Schankman says. "We could have earned the same amount of money as we got bought out for over a certain period of years. But on the other hand, it gave us a chance to move on, and why not take it?"

The Contemporary founders went their separate ways, with Schankman eventually recovering the Contemporary name and re-forming the company to buy entertainment for Live on the Levee, Fair St. Louis and corporate events, among many other endeavors.

He also continues to play his trumpet, performing with the Fabulous Motown Revue, the Sessions Big Band and the Steve Schankman Orchestra, which will play a salute to Frank Sinatra at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival on Nov. 6.

Schankman notes with some degree of pride that not only has his company provided much of the soundtrack for St. Louis over the past four decades, but many of the people who are at the top of the music business in St. Louis today got there by coming up through the ranks at Contemporary.

"Steve Litman at the Fox, Ken Krueger at the Pageant, Dave Girardi at Live Nation, Joe Litvag at AEG, and even guys who do smaller things. They all came from the Contemporary School of Steve and Irv."

Dan Durchholz is a freelance journalist who covered many of the concerts discussed in the book.