Changes On The Way To The Forum

Madison Square Garden execs have been wooing talent agencies, courting producers and pitching promoters as they gear up for what could be a bout worthy of booking at the Arena: the Garden’s new Forum theater versus Radio City Music Hall.

With the two-year, multi-million-dollar renovation and expansion of the old Felt Forum, Garden officials are promoting the 5,600-seat house as a virtually new concert venue in Manhattan. That spells serious new competition for the venerable, 5,874-seat Music Hall.

Letting loose the opening salvo of what could become a full-scale public relations war between the two midtown houses is Richard H. Evans, Garden president and CEO. Evans held the same position at Radio City before hiking the 15 blocks to the Garden in 1987. No surprise that he now says Radio City can’t hold a candle to the Forum – in everything from production facilities to audience sight lines.

Whether any headway has been made in terms of booking is difficult to ascertain: Although Ned Dewitt, prez of the Garden’s entertainment and attractions group, began soliciting bookings three months ago, Garden officials won’t release names. Evans says only that a “major event” is set for the September opening, and an announcement will be made within six weeks.

To bolster awareness of the rebuilt Forum, which has been dark since January 1989, Garden officials are launching an aggressive marketing campaign designed to give the theater a competitive edge in the medium-sized live venue market.

According to Dewitt, management is looking to boost bookings at the theater to 250 events per year, up from the old Forum’s annual bookings of less than 100. Dewitt says an optimum annual breakdown would be 150 music shows, 50 corporate events in which the hall is rented by outside companies for such functions as shareholder meetings, and 50 “proprietary” shows in which the Garden has full or part equity – the type of seasonal productions long a specialty of Radio City.

With concessions now owned and operated by the facility itself, the Garden has extra incentive to rent space to other corporations, Evans says. A scattering of boxing, wrestling and other sport events will be staged in the Forum primarily for presentation on the Garden’s cable network channel.

Although the Forum costs are a significant portion of the overall $200 million Garden renovation, officials declined to break down specific expenditures. Evans says only that the total price was evenly split between the hard costs of construction and soft expenses of designing and engineering.

While the Garden renovations include extensive work on the facility’s 20,000-seat Arena and virtually all public areas, the re-design of the smaller Forum could have the biggest impact on New York’s live industry.

At least at this early stage, Radio City officials are resisting the Garden’s baiting. Responding to Evans’ comment that the Forum is “a much better concert venue,” a spokesman for the music hall would say only that “Radio City is such a special place, it’s really not possible to compare it with any other venue.”

With an amphitheater configuration, the Forum is designed to house music and family fare events, trade shows, even legit road productions. A movable stage and retractable front-section seats will allow for in-the-round staging of boxing and wrestling.

The theater has been gutted and rebuilt with renovations including a seating capacity boost from 4,300 to 5,600, a repositioning of the stage area, the inclusion of a three-floor fly space above the stage, a new entrance, as well as improvements to equipment access, backstage and dressing room areas. The venue will be linked to the Garden’s upgraded television production facilities, eliminating the need for tv crews to cable the house for filming.

The project, Evans says, is 85% complete, with the major structural work nearly finished. What’s left is mostly cosmetic – dry walls, equipment installation and the like.

And, of course, marketing. Garden execs are scrambling to counteract the old Felt Forum’s reputation as the second-rate stepchild of the Garden’s Arena.

“Historically,” Evans concedes, “the Forum has not been considered attractive” to promoters. Since the Garden’s construction in 1968, the emphasis has been on the Arena’s pro sports franchises and its mega-sized rock concerts. Mid-level music acts and family fare attractions “had to jump through barbed wire to get in this place,” per Dewitt.

Garden execs are aggressively luring business their way, underscoring their hunger for business in the medium-size entertainment market. Among the first to receive the Garden’s promo treatment are the CAA and William Morris agencies, Grammy Award-producer Pierre Cossette and veteran legit producer Alexander Cohen, among others.

In addition to the Forum reconstruction, the multi-million-dollar renovation project includes a host of other improvements to the 22-year-old Garden building. Nearly all public areas are being refurbished, concession and merchandising services are being expanded, restrooms enlarged, new escalators and elevators installed, sidewalks and lighting replaced, two restaurants built, loading areas redesigned and television and cable facilities upgraded.

More than 100,000 square feet of new space has been added to the Garden. The Forum itself has been enlarged by expanding the stage area over what used to be an outdoor sidewalk. Much of the added space, however, is taken up by a new, large-windowed “sky lobby” that runs along the Arena’s upper-level, providing direct access to 88 private suite boxes.

Renovation plans date back to the early 1980s when parent company Gulf & Western (now Paramount Communications) first weighed remodeling the existing structure or building a new facility. Plans for a new building were scuttled due to high cost and difficulty in finding an appropriate location, according to Evans.

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