Renovated opera house shakes up Boston legit scene

A correction was made to this article on Aug. 23, 2004.

NEW HAVEN — “The Lion King” isn’t the only big attraction that’s roaring in Beantown.

The new king of the touring jungle in Boston is the new 2,600-seat Opera House, owned and operated by Clear Channel Entertainment. Last month’s opening marked the piece de resistance of the entertainment conglomerate’s real estate holdings in the city.

In addition to the Opera House, Clear Channel has long leases on the 1,700-seat Colonial and the 1,100-seat Wilbur Theater. (It also owns and operates the Charles Theater, home to the long-running Blue Man Group and “Shear Madness.”)

Clear Channel presents its “Broadway in Boston” series at various theaters. With the Opera House open, the series now can lay claim to the most high-profile — and profitable — touring shows.

The arrival of the Opera House puts Clear Channel in competition for those shows with the 3,600-seat Wang Center.

“There was clearly a niche based on the economics of touring that was missing from that marketplace, and that was for a 2,600-seat house,” says Scott Zeiger, CEO of the North American theatrical division for Clear Channel Entertainment.

The project began eight years ago when Theater Management Group, a Houston company purchased by Clear Channel several years ago, saw a study indicating the Boston market had an attractive demographic for live entertainment of nearly 5 million that was underserved.

The company negotiated with the city to restore and renovate the 1928 former Washington Street vaudeville house, located in what was the heart of the Combat Zone, an area known for its sleaze, or raffishness, depending on one’s tastes. Originally called the B.F. Keith Memorial Theater, it was built by Edward Franklin Albee (grandfather of playwright Edward Albee) as a lavish monument to his late business partner.

But the lucrative circuit that made Albee and Keith their fortune was dying. Within a year the rococo, Beaux Arts theater designed by architect Thomas Lamb became a movie house, which it remained for decades (changing its name to RKO Memorial and then the Sack Savoy). In 1978, Sarah Caldwell’s Boston Opera Co. acquired the building and performed there until 1990; she sold the facility to Theater Management Group in the mid-’90s.

Financing the entire $39 million project itself, Clear Channel refurbished the front of the house while the stage and backstage was rebuilt and expanded to accommodate major touring shows. The theater seats half its audience in the orchestra and the other half in its swooping single balcony.

“We knew that this theater would drive three-quarters of a million people through the front door the first year of its operation,” says David M. Anderson, president of Theater Management. And it’s well on its way to achieving that: Last week “The Lion King” played to the theater’s gross potential of $1.3 million.

The immediate advantage the Opera House has now, besides size, is an open calendar. Because the renovation/restoration was done with private funds, the venue is more free to book than not-for-profits like the Wang. The wide-open calendar is one of the reasons the Opera House landed “Lion King,” which is expected to extend beyond its end-of-year date.

Due in also in 2005 for eight to 10 weeks is “The Phantom of the Opera,” previously a Wang tenant.

Despite industry rumors, Zeiger denies the Opera House has exclusive deals and says Clear Channel does not “block book.” “That’s not what we do,” he says. “We understand there are competitive markets and we just have to work harder there.”

Josiah Spaulding Jr., president and CEO of the Wang, took a PR hit last year when he booted Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” out of the not-for-profit Wang for 2004 in order to book the Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes. Ironically, “Nutcracker” will play the Colonial this holiday season and then will play the Opera House beginning in 2005 and for two years after that.

“He clearly did what he thought was best for the bottom line of his operation by doing something that was seriously commercial,” says Zeiger.

Anderson says if the Wang did not book the Rockettes, the Opera House would have.

But are there enough top touring shows to go around?

Zeiger says Clear Channel is tapped into more shows than ever, either as a simple investor or as a general partner. Besides having pieces of hits such as “Hairspray” and “The Producers,” Clear Channel is at the table for shows such as the revivals of “Sweet Charity” and “La Cage Aux Folles” as well as the new “All Shook Up” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

“We are interested in controlling our own destiny to the best of our ability,” Zeiger says, “and we are more active today than we have ever been in achieving that.”

Theater Management’s Anderson says Clear Channel theaters “do not solely relay on its own promoted or produced shows to make our theaters run. We encourage non-Clear Channel promoters, both with theatrical and musical shows, to use our venues.”

Zeiger says the next major Clear Channel venture is in Las Vegas, where it will invest $35 million in the 90-minute version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” directed by Harold Prince. “We have never played a permanent installation in what is arguably the second most important live entertainment market in the world,” Zeiger says.

In terms of future theaters to buy or renovate, he deferred comment on speculation that the 1928 2,400-seat Boyd Theater in Philadelphia (renamed the Sameric) was Clear Channel’s next real estate project. “But Philly is something we’re extremely interested in. It’s definitely on our radar.” He also indicated the company “would like to do something in Salt Lake City.”

Two shuttered theaters on either side of the Opera House are not, however, candidates for Clear Channel involvement, Anderson says. Boston Redevelopment Authority is brokering a deal to save the 400-seat Modern Theater, while the 1,200-seat Paramount is a former movie theater and local conversations center on it being used to house not-for-profits.

Albee thought he had a good thing going when he built his vaudeville palace in 1928, only to see it one year later become the victim of a changing theatrical landscape. Could the restored Opera House suffer a similar theatrical jolt?

“If the dynamics of the business are going to shift, they’ll do so as much because of us,” says Zeiger, who says he just extended his contract with Clear Channel for four years. “We may be the instigator of change, but we’re not going to be the victim of it.”

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