At age 25, Peace Center has a knack for risk-taking

At age 25, Peace Center has a knack for risk-taking

From The Greenville News

Article by Paul Hyde; photo by Katie McLean

As it celebrates its 25th birthday, the Peace Center has never been in better shape.

A record-breaking 287,100 tickets were sold for 318 events at Greenville’s cornerstone performing arts venue during the 2014-15 season.

Annual revenues, totaling $19 million, are at an all-time high. Plus, there are more shows on tap than ever before.

“We’ve done nothing but go up up up,” said Megan Riegel, the Peace Center’s president and CEO since 1997.

The world-class arts complex also has played a major role in revitalization, observers say, helping to make downtown Greenville one of the sparkling gems of the Southeast.

For the Peace Center, the road to success has been paved with a fair amount of calculated risk-taking — of both the artistic and fiscal sort.

In the past several years, the arts venue has pushed the artistic envelope with musicals such as “The Book of Mormon,” “Spring Awakening” and “Cabaret,” all of which include strong language and sexual content.

The Peace Center, located on a 6-acre site at Main and Broad streets, also has hosted politically oriented “blue” comedians such as Bill Maher, Dennis Miller and Lewis Black.

Maher, who’s often pointedly critical of religion, “certainly raised a lot of eyebrows for people, but he does a great show and he packs the house and people love him,” Riegel said.

The Peace Center, nestled in the conservative South, might have avoided edgy shows in its earlier years, but the community’s tastes appear to have broadened over the past two decades. Several years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” drew picketers outside the Peace Center.

Today, such protests never occur at the center.

“I think we grew together,” Riegel said. “We took a little more risk and people followed. I’ve seen a trend where people are more open-minded, embracing today’s culture. With the support of the board, over the years we became fearless in what we brought in. We wanted to have the highest-quality available. If it’s playing on Broadway and it’s a hit, we want to bring it in.”

Balance also is fundamental to the Peace Center’s mission. “The Book of Mormon,” with its barbed critique of religious credulity, may capture the headlines, but the arts center also brings to town Broadway classics like “The Sound of Music” and family shows such as “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

The Peace Center and its resident companies feature hundreds of children’s shows, educational programs, and theater, dance and orchestral performances.

Serving eclectic tastes is the name of the game. In recent seasons, the Peace Center has hosted singing legends Tony Bennett, Audra McDonald, Liza Minnelli, Johnny Mathis and Diana Ross, singer-songwriters such as Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Melissa Ethridge, country singers Don Williams and Martina McBride, rock bands Foreigner, Counting Crows and Moody Blues, jazz and world music groups such as Pink Martini, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, dance companies like the Joffrey Ballet, Pilobolus and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Kathy Griffin, and humorist/storyteller Garrison Keillor – just to name a few.

“The Peace Center’s goal is always a broad variety of programming,” Riegel said.

Fiscal risk-taking

The arts center has taken some bold fiscal risks as well. Six years ago, it forged ahead with a $23 million renovation plan in the midst of the deepest national downtown since the Great Depression.

“We launched it right when the recession started in 2009,” Riegel said. “But we had done our homework. We knew what we were getting into. The original plan was for a $36 million renovation and we trimmed that way back. We had a good assessment of what we could raise.”

Fundraising efforts, which proved a tremendous success despite the economic challenges, doubled the size of the Concert Hall’s lobby, added a lounge overlooking the Reedy River, and created an education studio, multipurpose loft, outdoor amphitheater, public plaza and a park along the river.

“It’s an amazing, gorgeous facility,” Riegel said. “I think that capital campaign went so well because people understand the importance of the Peace Center to our community.”

Today, by many measures, the Peace Center reigns as the largest arts organization in the state.

Attendance and revenues have increased exponentially over the years. In the Peace Center’s inaugural season of 1990-91, 75,000 people attended 45 events. This past season, 287,100 tickets were sold for 318 events.

“The fact that people are buying tickets the way they are suggests that we’re getting some things right,” Riegel said.

In 2005, Peace Center revenues were $6.8 million. For the season ending in 2015, that figure is $19 million, representing a 280 percent increase over 10 years.

The arts center has grown in prestige over the years as well, attracting many first national tours of Broadway shows, such as the recent “Kinky Boots,” “Motown” and “Newsies.” Performing arts centers particularly covet first national tours, which generally feature top-notch casts and the direct involvement of the Broadway creative team.

“Tour producers have all taken notice,” Riegel said. “They want to come here.”

Broadway shows often play for one week at the Peace Center. But some blockbusters, such as “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Phantom of the Opera” have enjoyed three- or four-week runs — often selling out each performance.

Riegel is particularly proud, however, of the center’s educational programs that reach tens of thousands of students every year. In addition, 1,400 free tickets are distributed annually to under-served communities in the Upstate.

“We’ve seen people who’ve never walked through our doors before and when they do, we try to make them feel that this is their home, too,” Riegel said.

Big business

The Peace Center is big business for Greenville, too, creating and sustaining jobs, and helping boost the local economy. The complex contributes particularly to downtown’s roaring economic engine.

A single Broadway blockbuster, for instance, can deliver a multimillion-dollar economic impact. In 2012, “The Lion King” provided an estimated $15 million shot in the arm to Greenville — just over the course of one month. The show brought thousands of people downtown, with many patrons visiting from outside the city and some from outside the state. A considerable number enjoyed Greenville restaurants and stayed in local hotels.

“The Lion King” tour hired two dozen local musicians and backstage crew to assist with costumes and wigs and in other capacities. The production, which returns to Greenville next season, in 2012 included 134 cast and crew members who stayed in local hotels and dined in local restaurants.

Plus, revenues from events sustain the Peace Center’s 52 full-time and 96 part-time jobs.

All of this is a boon for Greenville’s economy.

The Peace Center also has been central to the rebirth of downtown, many local observers say. In the early 1990s, the Peace Center and Hyatt Regency, located at two ends of a struggling Main Street, helped to spark the dynamic economic growth that, in turn, created the vibrant, award-winning downtown that Upstate residents cherish today.

“Along with its significant role in downtown’s revitalization, the Peace Center truly catalyzed an amazing level of interest and support for the arts from both the public and private sectors,” said Alan Ethridge, executive director of Greenville’s Metropolitan Arts Council.

The beginning

The idea of building what came to be known as the Peace Center emerged as early as the late 1970s or early 80s with the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, said Betty Peace Stall, who was president of the foundation that built the Peace Center.

The orchestra performed regularly at Furman University’s McAlister Auditorium but desired a newer and more centrally located venue.

In 1985, then-Mayor Bill Workman put together a task force to determine the cost of building a performing arts center.

The late Greenville attorney David Freeman proposed a public-private fundraising partnership. Fred Walker, who had recently retired as president of Henderson Advertising, chaired the campaign.

Three branches of Greenville’s prominent Peace family kicked off the capital fund drive by donating $10 million in 1986.

“I think we did it for the quality of life for the people in this region,” said Stall, whose grandfather, Bony Hampton Peace, was a longtime owner of The Greenville News.

“We didn’t have access to the things that come to the Peace Center these days,” she said.

Other prominent local residents, including the Jolley and Furman families, supported the effort.

Eventually, six branches of the Peace family would become involved with the project, Stall said.

A total of $42 million was raised in just a few years, with 70 percent of the money coming from private donations.

At the time, there were no large venues in Greenville capable of hosting major Broadway shows, although McAlister Auditorium provided space for classical concerts. The Greenville Memorial Auditorium, torn down in 1997, hosted big rock concerts — such as the last show by the original Lynyrd Skynyrd on Oct. 17, 1977, the day before the plane crash that claimed the lives of three members of the band.

Project leaders looked at more than 15 possible sites for the new performing arts center and settled on a 6-acre area on Greenville’s Main Street that was then occupied by “a hodgepodge of buildings,” Stall said.

“There was a paint shop in there, a construction office, a dry cleaner’s and a sewing plant,” Stall said. “There was an old coach factory. The first time I went in there, I stepped backwards on a dead pigeon. The Reedy River had been running different colors. That whole site really needed some help.”

More than 1,500 attended the Peace Center groundbreaking in September, 1988.

The Peace Center Concert Hall would have a capacity of 2,100 and feature state-of-the-art acoustics and technology.

Dorothy Hipp Gunter, meanwhile, donated $3 million for a second performance space, the 400-seat theater that later would be named the Gunter Theatre.

Grand opening

The Peace Center opened its doors for the first time on Nov. 19, 1990, hosting “First Night at Peace.”

The center bustled with artistic activity from the start. Jack Cohan, who served as the Peace Center’s executive director from 1989 to 1997, is particularly proud of the range of classical music legends he brought to the Peace Center in the early years. Many were visiting Greenville for the first time.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman, a friend of Cohan’s, performed at the Peace Center five times. Soprano Leontyne Price sang in the center’s first and second seasons. Other classical performers at the venue included soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, pianist Andre Watts, violinist Joshua Bell, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma in recital with pianist Emanuel Ax.

Cohan recalled a visit by flutist James Galway, who phoned Cohan from the downtown Hyatt Regency with a minor emergency.

“Jack, I’ve ripped me trousers,” Cohan remembers Galway saying in his lilting Irish accent. “You’ve got to take me shopping.” (The two found some suitable clothes at a local haberdashery.)

The Peace Center featured Broadway greats Carol Channing and Rita Moreno. Also visiting were groups such as the Vienna Choir Boys, the Canadian Brass, the King’s Singers and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.

Hal Holbrook offered his iconic portrayal of Mark Twain. Shirley MacLaine performed three concerts at the Peace Center before a European tour.

“We were doing a wide range of programming,” said Cohan, now a Travelers Rest resident who came to the Peace Center after leading a performing arts complex at the University of Connecticut. “There were loads of interesting and high-quality things in every category.”

Another early public performance at the center was a concert by the visiting USSR State Symphony, conducted by Edvard Tchivzhel, who, while in Greenville, requested and was granted asylum in the United States. Tchivzhel was appointed music director of the Greenville Symphony in 1999 and continues to serve in the position today.

The idea for the Peace Center originally came from the Greenville Symphony, of course, and classical musicians routinely praise the Concert Hall and Gunter Theatre for their fine acoustics.

Tchivzhel said both halls offer a “very clear, warm, rich and natural sound.”

He added, “That is why the Peace Center has become a wonderful, beloved home for the Greenville Symphony Orchestra.”

Stall credits Riegel, who became president and CEO in 1997, for the Peace Center’s smooth sailing over the past 19 years.

Under Riegel’s leadership, the center through the years has created an endowment of almost $28 million. Some interest from the endowment can be used for annual operations and capital expenses as well as a cushion when unexpected problems arise.

“It’s put away for a rainy day,” Riegel said.

Among Stall’s favorite events at the Peace Center are its educational programs for students.

“For children to be able to enjoy these performances is really exciting,” Stall said. “When I would be in the Multimedia Building (currently The Greenville News building) and look out at those yellow school buses at the Peace Center, it just made my heart leap.”

The Peace Center recently honored Stall for her many years as chairwoman of the Peace Center board by dedicating an art installation called “Butterflies for Peace.”

Created by artist Yuri Tsuzuki, “Butterflies for Peace” displays 200 stainless steel butterflies in flight, measuring between 6 and 12 inches each. It is located on the south side of the Concert Hall building, on an exterior wall facing the Reedy River.

“I was just blessed to have been a part of this,” Stall said. “It’s really gratifying to see the impact the Peace Center has had.”

Riegel, for her part, is focusing on the Peace Center’s next big project: a multimillion-dollar campaign to address a number of needs, upgrading or replacing boilers, the HVAC system, roofing, sound systems and lighting, among other priorities. The Concert Hall also needs new seats.

She’s confident the Peace Center’s generous supporters will once again step up to the plate.

“I’m grateful every single day for this opportunity to lead this organization,” Riegel said. “I’m grateful for the board and this beautiful facility and the donors and volunteers and staff. It takes a village and everybody is just fantastic. I’m confident we’ll make good strategic decisions for the next 25 years.”