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The Peabody: Do more venues mean a bigger pie?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 1, 2013 - Peabody Opera Houseowners are celebrating a first year they say was so successful that they’re almost pinching themselves.

The historic institution that operated as the Kiel Opera House for more than half a century reopened in October 2011. Because it was closed for 20 years in between, Peabody co-owner Chris McKee likened the launch to the start of a brand-new business. In the planning stages, he never imagined the big names who would occupy the 3,100-seat Peabody in its first six months.

“If someone would have said, ‘OK, you’re going to have Oprah Winfrey in the building to film two shows and Michelle Obama in the building for a fundraiser and you’re going to debut the Cardinals World Series video in your theater,’ we would have been ecstatic,” McKee said.

Cooperation or competition?

In its first year, the Peabody offered 90 ticketed mainstage events, and drew more than 150,000 people. The venue's 12 box seating areas with VIP perks sold out before the venue opened. It hosted 80 private events including the Michelle Obama fundraiser, and 16 weddings and receptions.

In the second year, subscription sales rose 25 percent. The Peabody declined to provide specific sales numbers for either year.

Sold-out shows in the first year -- most of which were music events -- included Widespread Panic, Lewis Black, Florence + The Machine and Nicki Minaj. But that doesn’t mean the Peabody will focus more on music at the expense of theater, comedy and other shows.

“Our goal is to provide a really broad range of entertainment offerings not just for our box-holders or [premium orchestra] royalty seats but for everyone who that comes,” McKee said.

Peabody booking employees work closely with their counterparts at the 20,000-seat Scottrade Centernext door, of which McKee and his brother are also part owners.

“We look at the calendars together, we look at what’s a better fit for which venue,” McKee said. “Of course, Scottrade is a much bigger venue.”

For booking purposes, McKee also said he also sees the Fox and other local venues more as partners than competitors. Some shows are better suited for the Peabody, others for the Fox, he said. When one venue’s booked, the other can offer a show that might have otherwise skipped St. Louis.

“It’s not like there are only 10 shows coming to St. Louis this year so we have to steal every one we can,” McKee said. “We look at the Peabody as an opportunity to make the pie of arts and entertainment in St. Louis bigger, not steal a piece of pie from somebody else.”

McKee’s mindset of more venues equaling more entertainment is shared by Pittsburgh-based arts-marketing consultant John Elliott, who has worked with the Regional Arts Commission. In Elliott's experience, having more arts and entertainment offerings ultimately increases the number of events people attend.

‘When someone purchases a ticket or a membership, it changes the probability in a positive way that they will make more purchases from other arts and cultural organizations,” Elliott said. “We see this in every market we work with.”

The biggest competitor for any arts institution is not other venues, but a household’s own electronics, according to Elliott.

“What you have is a range of alternatives and that includes staying at home. At the end of the week, someone may just want to watch their 52-inch flat screen,” Elliott said.

The buzz: no impact

The Fox turned down the Beacon’s request for ticket-sales numbers and for an interview. The organization did provide a statement from Richard Baker, president of Fox Associates, which read, in part:

“ ... as a privately held company we do not discuss our goals, projections or anything of that nature with the public or press,” Baker said.

The Touhill released a statement, saying “We haven’t seen an impact from the Peabody.”

There's been little-to-no local conversation about significant change brought about by the Peabody, agreed Steven Woolf, artistic director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis for 25 years.

“ ... I haven’t heard any chat about the Peabody cutting into audiences at the other venues in town,” Woolf said, in an email.

As the Peabody heads deeper into its second year with offerings including the touring debut of “Flashdance -- the Musical,” it has only one real difficulty to address: parking.

“When there’s a Scottrade and an Opera House event on the same night, parking may be challenging,” McKee said.

The problem is not a lack of parking spaces, but a dearth of information about their location.

“We need better signage, better directions on the webpage, about where the parking spaces are,” McKee said.

More changes are in store at the Peabody, but the details are under wraps.

“Right now there’s nothing I can talk about,” McKee said. “But, rest assured, we are always looking at our offerings and ways we can improve what we’re doing.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.