Courtesy of History San Josť
HAILING STORM: The Mission Taxi Company fleet and its drivers posed for a photo op in front of the Civic in 1947.
Can a multimillion-dollar renovation and a new promoter put a venerable San Jose venue back on the radar of big-name touring acts?
By Gary Singh
A SMALL makeshift office cubicle sits at stage right in the San Jose Civic Auditorium, where a stoked Kevyn Clark is showing me a homemade computer slideshow of entertainers who have graced the stage at San Jose's historic venue.
One after the other, slides of James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, the Stones, Ronnie James Dio and Santana flip onto his laptop screen while Beethoven's Ode to Joy blares from the speakers. Clark, a veteran union steward for the Civic Auditorium, as well as Parkside Hall and Cirque de Soleil, is also the Civic's unofficial archivist behind the scenes now that a new multimillion-dollar renovation project is well under way. He is currently compiling a list of every act that ever performed at the Civic. After exiting his office, we saunter across the empty stage, with Clark explaining his criterion for compiling such a list.
"As soon as I get three confirms that a show happened, then I'm OK with it," he states. He explains that he has a "finder" out there in archive land, constantly on the hunt for any possible recordings from the Civic—just to confirm that the show actually took place, of course.
Gazing out at the newly sanded and shined main floor, we discuss the renovations. Clark points up toward the ceiling with a sweeping gesture, identifying eight cream-colored Altec speaker cabinets, circa 1975, hanging from various places.
"All of these will be taken down," he informs me, with a tinge of relief in his voice.
Another gargantuan '70s cabinet, complete with orange speaker horns to match the plastic seating, hangs right above the stage where we stand. Clark refers to it as "The Mother Ship."
"That one goes too," he adds.
In 2007, the city of San Jose approved a $13 million dollar renovation of the 70-year-old venue. To be implemented in phases, the renovations cover a variety of changes to the building, including state-of-the-art sound, video and lighting, as well as major structural and cosmetic upgrades. The end result will be am updated midsize venue seating just under 3,000 and a much-anticipated shot-in-the-arm for a downtown music scene that seems to be endlessly in search of an identity.
To make the project happen, a partnership was consummated between current operator Team San Jose and L.A.-based Nederlander Concerts to manage, operate and book shows at the auditorium. As of two months ago, a full-time staff is in-house, including a talent buyer, a general manager and a marketing director, with a corporate salesperson and a special-events operator on the way soon.
This arrangement followed a few years of confusion and tumult. In 2003, Team San Jose was formed to respond to a Request for Proposals to operate the Convention Center and other facilities, including the Civic, which had previously been managed by the city of San Jose.
Headed by Dan Fenton, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Team San Jose's executive team was a who's who of city insiders: hoteliers, elected officials and members of the South Bay Labor Council, including its then director, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, who was recently replaced by the new SBLC director, former Councilmember Cindy Chavez. (Chavez is now the co-chair of TSJ's board of directors.) Team San Jose was awarded the five-year contract, which began in June 2004.
Glitches arose when a 2006/07 Santa Clara County Grand Jury report called the selection process flawed because the deal between the city and Team San Jose did not contain adequate performance standards. The grand jury also found that the city had failed to hold Team San Jose accountable for not achieving its target numbers.
At that time, the city opted to continue the contract anyway, and a new five-year contract was renewed last year, despite the grand jury's recommendations otherwise. In a story reported by Metro in March 2008, months ago, the city and Team San Jose were still hashing out whether or not the millions allocated for the Civic's renovation would be enough. At the time, misgivings about Team San Jose's ability to run a concert facility were expressed by Councilmember Sam Liccardo and others. Now that Nederlander is in the house, things are looking more optimistic.
SOUND INVESTMENT: Kevyn Clark works on dismantling the old sound system at the San Jose Civic.
The Civic is about to turn yet another page in a decades-long topsy-turvy history of downtown San Jose venues.
A Spanish Mission–style building, the Civic Auditorium normally operates under the control of Team San Jose, which also presides over the California Theatre and the Center for Performing Arts.
Basically, the idea is that if convention or conference planners want to bring an event to San Jose, they only have to go through one portal, Team San Jose, to organize everything, rather than dealing individually with the hotels, the caterers, the offsite transportation, the entertainment and everything else.
While that model has proven to be effective for conventions, the Civic Auditorium itself still sits vacant for a good portion of the year. Outside concert promoters occasionally drop a show in, but the facilities have not been up to modern-day standards with respect to the artist and patron experience in decades. The concessions and backstage facilities are prehistoric. The hideous orange arena seats are made of uncomfortable plastic and have been torturing the backsides of patrons since the late '70s.
Cosmetically, the interior looks like a rundown boxing facility at best, and it hasn't been painted in 25 years. Soundwise, the acoustics are just plain awful.
Even worse, when the old convention center—now Parkside Hall—was built in 1977, it included a rectangular structure of meeting rooms that blocked off the Civic Auditorium's original loading dock, so all subsequent load-ins initially had to go through a ridiculous ersatz path around corners, across the entire floor of the Civic and up a final half-shredded wooden ramp just to get the equipment onto the stage. Even though nowadays stagehands can share the Tech Museum's loading dock, the load-in process still leaves much to be desired.
For the city of San Jose's own 2007 analysis of the venue, megapromoter Live Nation said of the Civic: "Although functional, it's cold and aesthetically unpleasing. It has a feel of an arena and not of a performance venue. It has been a tough sell for us as a live music venue. There are only a few shows that we can bring to the Civic due to its condition. We have success with the same artists in other Bay Area venues, but not in the Civic. The facility, with its late-'70s feel, is not a destination."
Courtesy Jud Cost and San Jose Rocks
STAR POWER: These vintage posters from the 1960s advertise the arrival of some of rock's biggest names in San Jose.
The first phase of renovations is now being completed, and we're not talking about merely painting the place. Former meeting rooms on the upper level have been gutted and transformed into badly needed upstairs concession stands. The dressing rooms are being revamped. A VIP area is being added.
A brand-new permanent audio/video system, designed by the Shalleck Collaborative and installed by BBI Engineering, is about ready to rock. Out in the Parkside Hall courtyard, the building blocking the Civic's loading dock is about to be demolished. In the lobby, the walls will soon be covered with classic concert posters of past gigs, just like the walls of the Fillmore or the Warfield.
Speaking over the phone from his office in Los Angeles, Nederlander Concerts CEO Adam Friedman said that upon first crossing the threshold of the building, his mind immediately went to some of the changes that are currently being made, especially the historic photos.
"I walked in the front door, and I just kind of said, 'OK, where's the artwork?" he recalled. "'Where's the concert stuff? How do you know you've just entered into an entertainment space?' So we're going to put up these full size, 5-by-7-foot photos of some of the icons who've played there—the Stones, Dylan, Santana, the Who—so when you walk in the building, you go, 'Oh my God, I'm in a concert venue, this is no fooling around.'"
On the exterior of the building all the way around to the Montgomery Theater, multicolored lighting will make the entire corner of Market and San Carlos come alive at nighttime. And during the next phase of renovation early next year, all of the plastic seating will be torn out and replaced with new black-leather chairs. Removable leather seats will be used for the main floor. New bathrooms, as well as a much-needed elevator, will also be installed.
Friedman says the Civic, as a midsize venue, has been on his radar for quite a while now, and he makes the inevitable comparison to SoCal, where Nederlander already operates the Grove of Anaheim, a 1,700-capacity theater. Anaheim was originally considered part of the Los Angeles market, but as Nederlander continued to operate the Grove, Anaheim eventually grew into its own market, with the Grove hosting about 250 events per year.
"You're talking about a very bullish market, and we see San Jose the same way," he said. "As a marketplace, it's kind of been left as the stepchild to San Francisco. People who live and work in and around San Jose, we believe, would just as soon see their entertainment in San Jose, as reflected by the success of the HP Pavilion. It's just that there hasn't been any content [for a midsize venue]. And the content has been left for San Francisco venues. So from a market standpoint, it's clearly the right market. It's clearly what we consider to be an additional stop along the tour routing for major artists."
The initial first round of shows already on sale includes a variety of talent. The public will first get to see the initial renovations when Freestyle Explosion featuring Stevie B hits town on July 24. Other concerts to follow throughout the summer include Dream Theater, Mudvayne, Gary Allan as well as Crosby, Stills & Nash. On the night before, at dusk, Mayor Chuck Reed will personally turn on the new multicolored lights on the exterior of the building.
The history of the Civic goes back to the early 1930s, when the idea for building an auditorium first emerged. Initially the citizens of San Jose twice voted against bond measures to pay for a venue, but along came T.S. Montgomery, who owned a 52,000-square-foot patch of land on San Carlos Street, the site of the former Park Hotel. Montgomery donated the land, valued at $113,000, to the city of San Jose on July 6, 1933. The feds kicked in $117,000, and the public then overwhelmingly passed a $375,000 bond measure. Groundbreaking took place on Oct. 22, 1934, with Montgomery himself turning the first shovel. Then on Nov. 11, 1935, Armistice Day, the first cornerstone was laid by the governor of California, following a huge parade.
On opening day, April 14, 1936, the pages of the San Jose Mercury Herald glowed with overflowing euphoria the likes of which had never been seen locally before. The paper devoted an entire commemorative section to new Municipal Auditorium, as it was then called, lauding the civic pride such a venue brought to California's oldest city.
"[The Municipal Auditorium] is a milestone in the development of San Jose's civic consciousness," wrote the paper. "In it, for the first time, the city gives itself something not absolutely essential, but necessary if it is going to be anything more than just a place to live and make a living. In the beauty of this civic 'front parlor' are integrated the best of all the boasts that San Jose is a city of fine homes and gardens, unsurpassed schools and cultural advantages and possibilities, located in the heart of one of the loveliest and most prosperous valleys in the world."
The paper even offered to send complimentary copies to whoever wanted one. "We'll mail them free anywhere in the United States," it wrote. "Leave a list of names and addresses and five cents for each paper, at the Mercury Herald business office, with any Mercury Herald agent or dealer, or at the Mercury Herald booth in the auditorium, and we'll do the rest."
Nearly every laborer who had worked on the building—carpenters, plumbers, electricians and more—placed ads in the paper, proclaiming their pride in San Jose. According to general contractor Charles Agustus Thomas, there were 7,400 cubic yards of concrete in the entire building, 2,600 yards of which were underground.
In addition to the reinforcing steel and sheet metal work, the building's frame contained 525 tons of steel. The main auditorium measured 118 by 79 feet, with a seating capacity of 3,300. At the time of opening, the stage was the largest one to be found between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Jay McCabe became the first manager of the auditorium, a position he held for two decades until he retired. Under his tenure, the venue grew into a force to be reckoned with. Entertainers like Gene Krupa, Duke Ellington, Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald performed on the main stage. Legendary boxers like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Max Baer competed. National figures who appeared included Eleanor Roosevelt, Admiral Byrd and President Herbert Hoover.
Other regular events included indoor tennis, the circus, conventions, pageants, basketball, symphony orchestras and much more—all during the first 20 years. In 1964, a new $641,500 convention wing, McCabe Hall, was added.
Unfortunately, San Jose has a talent for not allocating money to maintain its own buildings, and by 1970 the place had deteriorated so much, that Mercury-News reporter Nick Carroll, in a piece titled "San Jose's 'Faded Lady' in Need of Face Lift," had a field day describing its sad state of affairs.
"Forget what you've heard about a star's dressing room," he wrote. "A jail cell would be lavish compared to this room. ... Two naked 60 watt bulbs dot the I's of mirrors a funhouse wouldn't want, a two-spigoted wash basin clings to a chipped plaster wall, the ice cold and bare concrete floor doesn't profit from a wheezing steam radiator and the view from the window is of a parking lot." By Carroll's description, the stage floor was "a creaky, grumbly wooden patchwork ... the consistency of milk-sogged shredded wheat."
On the Radar Again
Even today, 40 years later, many touring acts and talent agencies remember the Civic as a dumpy roller-derby venue or something similar to a rundown high school auditorium. Stopping just short of proclaiming, "Repair it, and they will come," Friedman says changing peoples' perception of the venue is essentially very easy.
"Ultimately, two things change the perception with entertainment facilities," he explains. "One, what is the experience once you're there? Is it easy to get to? But once you are there, what's the experience in terms of the facility itself? We know we can control that, because that stuff's being done as we speak—the renovations are going in. The second part of that is, 'What's the nature of the talent?'"
He says change begins by getting the venue back on artists' radar, adding that of the shows already booked or pending, a handful of bands came on board once they heard a new million-dollar sound system was going in.
In other instances, road crews who had long lone since written the facility off became interested upon hearing that the loading dock was no longer going to be obstructed. Other artists were convinced solely upon hearing the star-studded history of the place.
Says Friedman: "I told [bands], 'Oh, by the way, did you know that there's going to be a wall of fame in front—and in the hallways—that shows all the iconic artists who've ever played this building?' And they said, 'Oh, yeah, I always knew it was a cool building, but who are ya talking about?' And I said, 'Oh yeah, just the Stones, the Who, AC/DC, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Buddy Holly, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra,' and they just kinda went, 'Oh my God. Why wouldn't we want to stop there?'"
When it comes to changing the public's perception of the Civic, having a local crew of folks definitely helps. Unlike before, when an outside promoter like Live Nation would insert a show whenever they couldn't use the Fillmore or the Warfield, Nederlander's team is in-house. Nederlander even plans to give tours of the newly reactivated facility. Everyone will be invited to come on down, get some food and check out the goods.
"One of the key things about re-educating folks that downtown is really cool and hip is by having a dedicated team of people," Friedman says. "And unlike other folks who've come into the building that weren't San Jose–based, the building has its own staff, its own team. ... We've already got 30-plus offers for concerts pending."
Even better, Nederlander doesn't insist on running the place exclusively. That is, they have no qualms about letting other promoters come in and use the building, if the situation proves beneficial for everyone involved.
"That was another reason, among others, when we got to know them, that we really liked Nederlander's approach," said Dan Fenton, chairman of Team San Jose. "They do not take the approach that no one else can come in."
I returned to the Civic last week, ambushing Kevyn Clark on the job, just a few days after my fist visit. Removal of the classic Altec ceiling speakers neared completion, and Clark was wheeling the last speaker around the corner toward the back of the venue, right next to the doors leading out into the Parkside Hall courtyard.
"The '70s are gone," he declared. "This stuff is outta here."
I followed him as he moved outside for a smoke break. As we stood there, other stagehands came in and out of the area, each engaged in his or her own project. Everyone seemed stoked that these renovations would finally give San Jose a modern midsize concert venue, rather than something that looks like a worn-out high school auditorium. And they were stoked that Team San Jose and Nederlander top brass were actually asking them, the stagehands, for their input on what needed to be done to the venue.
In the courtyard, yellow caution tape surrounded the structure blocking the Civic's old loading dock. Roofers, electricians and plumbers were assessing what was left of the structure's innards, in preparation for the final demolition.
By Clark's words, I could tell he is a man clearly dedicated to preserving the legacy of the San Jose Civic Auditorium.
"The history alone dictates that we take care of this building," he said, after taking a drag of his cigarette. "If we fail to do so, then we dishonor every musical event that has taken place here. In my opinion."
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