Performing arts groups often follow a tried-and-true business model: Stage popular crowd-pleasers like “The Nutcracker,” “A Christmas Carol” and pops concerts to fill seats, and subsidize more artistic programming throughout the rest of the year, such as classical concerts.
The Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra is no different, relying on ticket sales to its holiday pops shows as one of its biggest sources of revenue, Executive Director John Cain said.
“They call them pops because they’re popular,” he said.
For decades, the 75-year-old symphony orchestra — one of the largest in the state — played its pop shows at the 3,400-seat Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, the Region's largest venue. However, with owner White Lodging planning to tear down the landmark concert site after hosting its final show, an Oak Ridge Boys concert in December, the symphony faces an uncertain financial future.
“This is potentially devastating for the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra,” Cain said. “No other venue (in the Region) is as large, and we sold it out.”
White Lodging's plan also involves tearing down the nearby Twin Towers office complex to redevelop the 30-acre site it owns northwest of U.S. 30 and Interstate 65. The company isn’t saying what the redevelopment will involve other than a new hotel, but symphony officials doubt a new music venue is part of the plan.
Former Star Plaza CEO Charlie Blum said the symphony often sold out the venue, the third-largest in the Chicago market after the Chicago Theatre and the Arie Crown Theatre in the McCormick Place Convention Center.
He said the Star Plaza used to bring big names on stage such as Itzhak Perlman and Frank Sinatra Jr. before orchestras across the country started running into financial challenges about two decades ago, but the symphony's pops concerts always remained a big draw.
"It's very important to have the prestige of a first-class concert facility in Northwest Indiana," Blum said. "With the bandshell, it was acoustically tailored for a first-class symphony like the Northwest Indiana Symphony."
Conductor Kirk Muspratt suggested last year, after White Lodging initially announced it would tear down the Star Plaza, that Northwest Indiana should consider building a concert hall the way the Indianapolis suburb Carmel built The Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts.
Cain said it was unlikely the symphony could undertake such a capital campaign. He said fundraising already was challenging enough.
Finding a new venue
Knowing the Star Plaza would be gone after December, the symphony began scouting locations to play its final show for its 2017-18 season. The symphony plays classical concerts, such as this season's "The Mikado," "Valentine's Piano," and "Ballets by Tchaikovsky," in the auditorium of Bethel Church in Crown Point and will move its pops concerts to the 1,400-seat auditorium at Highland High School.
The new theater inside the $45 million, 126,300-square-foot, three-story Indiana University Northwest Arts and Science Building across from IUN's main campus on Broadway was considered but its capacity maxes out at 500 seats. The Theatre at the Center in Munster has just over 400 seats.
The symphony also looked at high school auditoriums in Merrillville, Hobart and Lake Central in St. John before making arrangements with Highland High School, Cain said.
“We settled on it after looking at every venue in Northwest Indiana. It’s a nice school auditorium,” Cain said. “It’s very large and has good acoustics.”
The symphony had some reservations about staging a concert in a high school auditorium as it's not a professional theater, and could deter attendees who had grown accustomed to performances in major venues.
“We don’t know if our audiences will be as enticed by the prospect,” he said. “The school auditorium is nice, but it’s not a theater.”
And since the auditorium's capacity is smaller than Star Plaza's, the symphony will need to stage at least twice as many pops concerts to sell the same amount of tickets. Even if all the concerts sell out, it will bring in less net revenue because musicians get paid per performance, increasing overhead, symphony representatives said.
There’s also a concern whether top musicians will continue performing in the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra if it no longer holds concerts in a professional theater, since most hail from Chicago and can play in larger halls.
Highland High School also isn’t as centrally located as the Star Plaza, which regularly drew audiences from Munster, Crown Point and Valparaiso, Cain said. The symphony board considered staging pops concerts at different venues across the Region, but decided that could lead to potential confusion about which performance was where, on what night.
“It splinters the audience,” Cain said. “It’s already going to splinter the audience to have two performances instead of one night. Even if the same number of people come out, it will divide the community. You won’t see your friends because they might have gone the night before.”
The Star Plaza was one of a kind in the Region and will be missed, Cain said.
“It was an exceptional venue and it had an important role in Northwest Indiana,” he said. “It was a tremendous home for pops concerts and it will leave a gap.”