•A look at the bigger rewards, and risks, that come with Memorial Coliseum concerts
FORT WAYNE — The heart of rock ’n’ roll appears to be beating stronger than ever in Fort Wayne’s amphitheater.
With Friday’s Huey Lewis and the News concert highlighting the season’s lineup – as well as becoming its quickest sellout ever – Foellinger Theatre has reached its five-year goal of becoming a player in the city’s entertainment industry, according to city parks officials.
Just a few years ago, the venue next to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo was generating less than $100,000 each year in revenue from its mostly free events.
This year, the theater is expected to bring in more than $400,000, according to Parks Director Al Moll, thanks to several prominent events.
“I don’t think we ever expected to have the success we’ve had,” Moll said. “We have the opportunity now to bring in name acts.”
While expenses have gone up along with the increased business, the theater has turned from a net loser of money to one that generates a healthy balance. Moll estimated expenses this year would be about $300,000.
The growth in the theater’s popularity coincided with a plan to bring in larger names that charge admission. Moll said the theater used to have only free events, but parks officials saw an opportunity to fill an entertainment void in the community. The first year brought in the Grass Roots, followed in later years by Air Supply and Three Dog Night.
Rick Samek, an attorney who chairs the city parks board, said the parks department decided to take some risk to bring acts that were national at one point but are typically toward the end of their careers. The success has been evident, he said.
“The crowds have just built and built and built,” he said.
Moll said the theater has found a niche with music of the ’70s and ’80s, although he admits one of the bigger challenges in meeting demand is the limited number of groups from that era still touring.
That success culminated with this week’s Huey Lewis show, which sold out faster than any concert at the theater despite having the highest ticket prices ever. Reserved seats were $40, and bleacher seats were $30.
Samek said there was real concern among park officials about whether there would be enough interest at that price to see an act who’s heyday is decades in the past. Those were erased when the concert sold out within weeks of being announced.
While this week’s prices are high for the theater, Moll said they are still a bargain compared with other communities. For example, Huey Lewis plays Saturday in Hammond’s Horseshoe casino, where tickets range from $45 to $130.
The success has allowed the parks to take slightly higher financial risks in booking groups. The city paid SHOUT! Entertainment & Promotions $52,500 to bring Huey Lewis, plus $34,500 for the Guess Who. Last year, the city paid $37,000 to the vendor to bring Three Dog Night to town.
The lower ticket prices locally won’t stop the parks from making money on the concert, said Moll, who estimated the show will net the city up to $20,000.
Profits from the shows are kept in a fund to be used on improvements at the theater, he said.
“You’d hate to lose $50,000 in one concert. Very rarely do we lose anything,” he said. “I think we found something that the community wanted.”
The city keeps all ticket proceeds from the concerts as well as sharing in the profits from concessions and merchandise.
The success of the paid shows has exceeded expectations, but Moll said the parks department will not abandon its efforts to provide free entertainment for residents over the summer.
There will be 32 events at the theater this summer with 13 charging admission. The remaining are free movies on Wednesday nights – beginning June 20 – and free concerts including the Air Force National Guard Band of the Great Lakes and the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir.
Samek said some of his favorite shows are “authorized cover bands” who play music of one or a few prominent groups, such as Hotel California, which will perform July 26.
Moll said the theater receives a $50,000 subsidy from taxpayers, the same amount it received in 2000. This helps pay for the free events and some maintenance at the facility. Additionally, it allows the city to save its gains from larger concerts to help pay for larger expenses.
“I don’t see us ever having to increase any subsidy from the city,” Moll said.
The theater is still rented by community groups for their own events, but Moll said open dates for such activities are becoming limited because of the expanded event schedule.
The theater’s ability to be financially sound is helped by it being owned by the city, so the parks don’t have to pay rent or taxes on it. Private organizations, especially the Foellinger Foundation, have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to help modernize the venue.
Moll said more than $1 million in improvements have been made at the theater in the past five years – 80 percent of which came from private sources. Those upgrades included a new sound system and roof.
Samek said the upgrade to the sound system was critical for the theater because the old one had no speakers in front, meaning people who sat farther away often could better hear the music.
Moll said one of the only factors limiting growth at the theater is its relatively small size – it has a capacity of 2,500.
“The only thing now is we actually need more room,” Moll said.
Moll said size does work to the park’s advantage because many acts like performing to sold-out audiences for marketing purposes.
The theater has gotten so successful that groups are now reaching out to the city to see whether dates are available, Samek said, noting the Doobie Brothers among them.
“It’s become a summer activity,” he said. “I can’t wait for June, July and August to roll around. It’s just really a source of a lot of pride.”