Appleton hopes to pack new theater

CHICAGO — Thanks to a harsh climate and an arts-loving population that supports touring Broadway with the same enthusiasm it extends to its beloved Green Bay Packers, northern Wisconsin has long been one of the most lucrative and important road markets.

Despite the relatively small population of Green Bay and the nearby Fox Cities, the area for years has supported multiple-week runs of hit shows and, in the past, has embraced tryouts of such nontraditional fare as “Gumboots” and “Spirit Dance.”

For many years, this market has been controlled by the Weidner Center, a well-respected, well-equipped venue located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay; it has a subscriber base in excess of 10,000.

But beginning this season, Clear Channel Entertainment will be providing some nearby competition. In January, the college town of Appleton (pop. 70,000) will become the latest Clear Channel road market, This has been made possible because a group of civic and corporate Appleton boosters somehow put together some $45 million to build a massive new performing arts center.

Downtown draw

Named the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center and located in downtown Appleton (about 28 miles from Green Bay), the new venue will seat more than 2,000 people, with a huge stage house and state-of-the-art technology and audience amenities. Appleton is hoping this contemporary theater will help revitalize its downtown — and draw audiences from throughout the region.

Culling an apt football metaphor, board member John Bergstrom calls the new theater a “Lambeau Field for the arts.”

Sensing the need to start big, Clear Channel has put together an opening slate that includes “Mamma Mia!” and “The Producers.” As of late August, more than 10,000 subscription series tickets had been sold. Although space will be found for other arts groups and local nonprofits, Broadway is front and center when it comes to the marketing of the center. A spokesman for the venue also says there are plans to do smaller-scale fare in a second studio space.

Room for both

Tom Gabbard, exec director of the Weidner Center, argues the market is big enough for both venues. Although the new theater is getting a lot of media attention and benefits from Clear Channel’s booking clout, he notes the longer-established Green Bay venue has strong relationships with several producers and a loyal audience.

For anyone inclined to suggest that his venue will be hurt by the competition posed by a flashy new theater down the road, he points out that not all the boffo shows will be in Appleton.

” ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ will debut its national tour here next summer,” Gabbard says. “And that’s one show that everyone in the Green Bay area wants to see.”

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