On my first visit to Eureka Springs in 1995 I stumbled upon the city’s auditorium and caught the second half of the Emerson String Quartet’s performance. Watching from the upstairs balcony, the quartet was outstanding, the sound near perfect, and I fell instantly under the spell of the then-shabby, but remarkable, performance space. It was magic.
Unfortunately, there are some who don’t get the magic and consider our Auditorium an albatross around the city’s neck. These are the people who would like to see the historic structure razed and replaced with a three-story parking garage.
Built in 1928 and christened with a performance by John Philip Sousa and his 68-piece orchestra, the AUD has played host to a bevy of world-class performers.
I had the privilege of covering the AUD for the local paper in what many consider the Golden Years (2004/2005), after the auditorium restoration project headed by then-mayor Kathy Harrison. Pearl Brick was put in charge and was responsible for bringing in big name acts like Ray Charles, Bill Cosby, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Ani DiFranco, Alison Krauss, Little Feat and Dr. John, to name several of many.
Most of these acts sold out and made money, or at the very least broke even, filling the 968 seat theater and our downtown core with a combination of locals, daytrippers and overnighters, most of whom spent time eating, shopping and sightseeing either before or after the shows.
The “Oh wows!” elicited by Susan Storch’s framed photographs in the AUD lobby of past legendary performers are often followed by “So what happened?”
It seemed everything was going along great. Eureka Springs was building an amazing reputation for bringing in world-class performers, and then – drum roll – the AUD lost money on two big names.
Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett should have easily been sellouts, but because of short booking notice, poor planning and zero advertising by our advertising commission, they failed to make money. That made very shortsighted CAPC commissioners nervous, but instead of addressing and fixing the problems, they fired Pearl Brick in a cloak and dagger emergency executive session.
And so ended the Golden Era. Pearl was given the pink slip and replaced by one of the CAPC commissioners who gave her the ax.
So, what do we do now?
Start by booking big-named acts into the AUD again, by either hiring Pearl Brick back or finding someone capable of doing the job, or who can train the newly hired events director to get it done.
It’s a different era now and many people, myself included, book and time trips according to who is performing when and where. These days, performing artists have their own websites that connect with the venues they’re playing, and use social media to alert their built-in fan-base as to where they are playing. This reduces the costs of advertising an event because the artist and their team are doing it for you.
There is more competition around us now, but what we have to offer is like no other – a historic, intimate performance space in an incredibly beautiful and historic setting. Locals, visitors and performers who have played here “get it.” All we have to do is convince the powers-that-be to “get it.”
People crave memories, and I will never forget watching Richie Havens, with guitar in lap, belt out “Freedom,” or hearing 70-year-old Mavis Staples’ soulful take on her hit, “I’ll Take You There.” It’s stuff that still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. And I can honestly say I saw Ray Charles at the piano sing “Georgia on My Mind” in what was to be his final public performance, at our AUD.
There is so much more we can do with the AUD. Let’s start with polishing our city “Jewel” by bringing back headliners to brighten our tarnished reputation as an arts and cultural destination.
If we book it, they will come.