The bigger the better?

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The bigger the better?
There’s just no denying it—the thing is absolutely massive. On the main approach from Emmet Street (where thousands of basketball game and concert goers will surely get a nice, long look as they sit stranded in event-day traffic), the $129 million John Paul Jones Arena rises out of its minimally landscaped surroundings like a square-browed giant buried up to his neck in grass-fuzzed clay. A low line of square portals draws a gap-toothed grimace, while sequoia-thick Tuscan columns rise past his red brick cheeks, supporting a crown of decorative concrete beams that thrust, pergola-like, over the distant ground. A huge swath of glass splits the façade in half, but the effect is more imposing than inviting—overall, this particular view of the arena splits the aesthetic difference between a convention center and a maximum-security prison.
    Turn the corner onto Massie Avenue, and things gradually get better. While biking past the southeast entrance does, somewhat disconcertingly, evoke the opening of the original Star Wars—with that colossal Imperial Destroyer just going on and on and on—the building’s humongous bulk gradually fades into the rising landscape, and its profile slims to an almost human scale. In fact, by the time you reach the front entrance—marked by more of those faux-Jeffersonian columns and spiky pergolas, but this time in a far-more-inviting curved formation—the JPJ seems surprisingly moderate and welcoming. In fact, visitors who didn’t know better might conceivably enter the parking lot from the west, look across the street to the billowing concrete parachute of University Hall, and assume that they were at the smaller of the two venues.
    As if. At 366,000 square feet (and with enough seating to accommodate 15,000 screaming sports fans), the JPJ is the largest entertainment facility in the state, and the fourth largest basketball arena in the ACC. It could easily hold every single UVA undergrad, with enough seats and luxury boxes left over to accommodate every Albemarle and Charlottesville high school student, as well. Considering that the Cavs’ average attendance for home games at U-Hall was reportedly about 7,750 last season (and given the fact that the team hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2001), it seems optimistic to the point of delusional to think they could fill a space of this size on a regular basis.
    But don’t tell that to the powers that be. UVA is outwardly bullish on their prospects of generating fan excitement this season, and with some reason. Although new basketball coach Dave Leitao led the team to only a middling .500 season in his first year, he has a sterling reputation, and his recent recruitment of two Top 100 prospects (small forwards Jamil Tucker and Will Harris), along with the return of superstar junior point guard Sean Singletary, give the team all the makings of a true NCAA contender.
    “There’s no doubt that we’ll have bigger crowds,” says UVA Director of Athletics Craig Littlepage. “With University Hall, and its limited capacity, we didn’t have an opportunity to bring in fans—all the fans that were interested in seeing Virginia and ACC basketball on a continuing basis. But with the capacity of 15,000, we’ll have the ability to meet the needs of Virginia basketball fans across the Commonwealth—particularly those who are going to want to be season ticket holders.”
    After pointing out all of the luxurious bells and whistles that the JPJ boasts, for both fans and players alike (mahogany-covered lockers! A space-age audio and lighting system, with four high-end Mitsubishi scoreboard screens!), Littlepage acknowledges, ever-so-slightly, the challenge that UVA basketball faces in reaching and maintaining such an exponential increase in game attendance.
    “Hopefully,” he says, “the arena will be just that component that will have these people connected to the University, and our programs, for a very long time.”

“Our job is to put butts in the seats.”

The JPJ’s new General Manager, Larry Wilson, is a boyish, affable salesman—
a cheerful and hyper-competent Southerner who radiates good will and rarely says a word that doesn’t fulfill his prime directive: Always promote the arena.
    Although many assume that the University is officially in charge of the JPJ, it’s actually Wilson’s employer, SMG Entertainment, that is responsible for the concert booking and day-to-day operation of the arena.
    A native of Memphis, Wilson’s welcoming drawl and affinity for promotional knick-knacks are the first things you notice about him. On the day that the University’s outgoing project manager, Dick Laurance, is officially set to hand Wilson the keys to the JPJ, SMG is obviously still in the process of moving in. Stacks of framed posters line the walls of Wilson’s office: a signed caricature of Aerosmith, a Shania Twain one-sheet proclaiming “The Wait is Over,” a blow-up of Wilson himself on the cover of the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Weekend Magazine. The newly installed bookshelves hold an autographed pair of basketball shoes, a strap-on plastic pig nose and, most intriguingly, a joke book titled I Hate Tennessee: 303 Reasons Why You Should, Too.
     SMG is a global entertainment company that specializes in large-scale venue management. The company was tapped to run the John specifically because of its incredible breadth of experience—with more than 200 theaters, coliseums and arenas under contract (including such diverse venues as the Plaza Theatre in El Paso, Texas, and something called “Palladium” in Dubai, UAE), SMG is truly one of the giants of the industry. But, to hear Wilson tell it, the entire intricate enterprise really boils down to one thing.
    “Our job,” he says, smiling broadly, “is to put butts in the seats.”
    And this, it can be said without hesitation, is something that SMG does remarkably well. If anyone should doubt it, they need look no further than the highly successful Rolling Stones concert that the company helped bring to Scott Stadium earlier this year. “Charlottesville was the smallest market on that tour,” Wilson points out, “so it really was a coup.”
    And, if he has his way, those aging British bad boys will just be a warm-up act for bigger things to come. Working hand-in-hand with Charlottesville-based promotional big shots Red Light Management (which, along with JPJ ticketing agency MusicToday, is owned by local rock ‘n’ real estate mogul Coran Capshaw), SMG has arranged for the John’s inaugural musical event to be a rare two-night stand by Charlottesvillian demi-gods the Dave Matthews Band.
    But it isn’t really Dave (or Eric Clapton, or James Taylor) who forms the cornerstone of SMG’s strategy when it comes to filling the gaping entertainment hole that the JPJ represents. No, that honor falls to mass-appeal country artists such as Kenny Chesney and cross-generational attractions like Cirque du Soleil, the Wiggles and the Ringling Bros. Circus.
    “What our job is,” Wilson says, “is to appeal to a wide range of people. Whether it’s a religious concert, a children’s show, something that appeals to the country fans… Our fans are going to come from the region, not necessarily just from Charlottesville. And I think we need acts that will appeal to a wide range of individuals.”
    And that, in a nutshell, is going to be the make-or-break proposition for the John, at least as an entertainment venue. Are there enough people in the surrounding areas who will make the trek, and pay top-dollar ticket prices of $75 or more, to see their favorite acts? For Wilson, it’s a gamble he’s more than willing to take.
    “If you’ve got an act like an Eric Clapton, who’s going to play one date in the state of Virginia,” he says, “we’re going to pull from everywhere. We’re going to pull from West Virginia, we’re going to pull from D.C., we’re going to pull from everywhere. If you’re talking a Kenny Chesney…well, he’s playing Nissan Pavilion, Virginia Beach, and my facility.  He’s sold out both of those, so we’ll see how well we do.”
    As we walk out onto the cavernous playing floor—the sectional basketball court taken up for the moment, revealing the mottled concrete below, construction workers and inspectors and forklifts running every which way to ready the arena for its August 1 opening—I dare to ask the forbidden question. What if it doesn’t work? What if Sean Singletary retires tomorrow, and the Wiggles moon the audience during their opening number, turning off a critical segment of elderly, conservative concert-goers? Does the JPJ eventually become the world’s most expensive shopping mall, or what?
    Wilson smiles his consummate salesman’s smile, flashing the look of a parent indulging an annoyingly inquisitive child. “No,” he replies. “I mean, that’s just not going to happen.”

The competition?

Across town, in an imposing brick building with round, ship-portal windows overlooking the Downtown Mall, Kirby Hutto, manager of the Charlottesville Pavilion, is settling in. In theory, Hutto is both Larry Wilson’s counterpart and nominal adversary. Even though the 1-year-old Pavilion—with its distinctive, circus-style white tent and towering steel arch—is an outdoor venue, and has a maximum seated capacity of only 3,500 (though they can squeeze in more for general admission shows), it will still be competing with the JPJ for certain acts.
    After all, one of the selling points of the John was its “flexibility.” Not only can the lower decks retract to expand the available floor space, but the arena also features an ingenious curtain system that can restrict seating to just the “lower bowl,” transforming the cathedral-like arena into an intimate theater of around 5,000 seats.
    But this is Charlottesville, after all. Thanks to the success of DMB—and the subsequent success of band manager Coran Capshaw’s Red Light Management—this once-sleepy town now boasts more booking and promotional clout than many cities twice its size, and so the situation isn’t quite so cut and dry. As it turns out, Hutto works under the same umbrella of companies that includes both MusicToday and Red Light, and is therefore, in some ways, unavoidably connected to the entertainment-booking nexus that stretches from Starr Hill all the way to the John Paul Jones Arena. But, as he sits in his new office, surrounded by half-installed computer stations and snaking piles of electrical cord, Hutto adamantly rejects the idea that he and Wilson will be chasing the same acts.
    “I don’t see where any of the acts that we’re going to be bringing to the Pavilion would be big enough to bring into the JPJ—I think you’re just looking at apples and oranges there,” he insists. “Probably the bigger question is, are there enough entertainment dollars in this market to support full programming at the JPJ, the Pavilion and the Paramount? And so far all the indications are yes.”
    But where are all these folks coming from? Hutto, obviously well versed in the data, has an exact answer for that, as well. “Look, you use to have to drive to Richmond, to D.C., to Tidewater, to the Kennedy Center to see these acts. Not that they’re coming [to the Pavilion], we draw people from the Valley, we draw from Culpeper, Warrenton, Lynchburg, even on down as far as Danville.”
    Which, once again, speaks to the question of what kind of acts, exactly, will pull in large enough crowds to make it worth everyone’s while. Although Hutto is reticent to give out exact numbers, he’s willing to concede that cutting-edge acts like Ween and the Flaming Lips, who might appeal to more cosmopolitan Charlottesville natives and transplanted New Yorker types, don’t do anywhere near as well as broad-appeal acts like Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson. It’s probably a safe bet to say that newly minted country starts Montgomery Gentry—who, one imagines, remain largely unknown among city residents—did far better business during their recent Pavilion run than the highly touted (and half-full) Pixies reunion show did last September.
    “We want to serve the entire market,” Hutto says. “That’s why we’ve gone after country artists and will continue to go after country artists. Those shows have done great for us. And I think that’s a really underserved market.” But Hutto is also quick to point out that there are tons of non-country artists who fill a similar need. “The same thing goes for James Brown,” he says. “We’re looking at acts who haven’t had a venue to play within Charlottesville—to serve that segment of the market that is willing to come out and buy tickets.”
    But doesn’t it all just seem a little…overwhelming? For folks who were around in the ‘70s and ‘80s—when there wasn’t even a “Charlottesville” road sign on Route 29S until you got within 45 miles of town—this recent flurry of large-scale construction and mass-appeal entertainment can often seem like an unstoppable steamroller, coming to squash everything interesting about Charlottesville into one flat, boring, middle-of-the-road pop-culture pancake.
    “People can try to make that argument,” Hutto responds. “I think there’s an element within the Charlottesville market that does not embrace change… Sure, it’s safe to say ‘it’s not gonna work’—but they’re just putting their heads in the sand. We’re successful, the Paramount is successful, and JPJ is certainly going to be successful. People are speaking with their wallets.”

Showtime

Sunday night, June 16. Just for the hell of it, I decide to walk down to the Belmont Bridge and try to catch some of the sold-out Willie Nelson show at the Pavilion. It’s already become a Pavilion concert-night tradition for the curious and ticketless to watch the shows for free from the overpass, and tonight is certainly no exception. The crowd lining the retaining wall is high-spirited and diverse—everything from a family of four that drove in from Louisa to a gaggle of punks and goths who wandered over from the west end of the Mall. The atmosphere is festive and slightly subversive—everyone feels like they’re putting one over on the Pavilion, having avoided the up-to-$60-with-service-charge ticket price and, in the process, gotten a much better view of Willie’s tour bus and smoke-shrouded walk to the stage.
    It occurs to me that Willie Nelson is, in many ways, the perfect act for the new Charlottesville. He draws equally from county fans, rockers, boomers, stoners and “King of the Hill” fans, and—because of his well-deserved “outlaw” reputation—it’s difficult for even the snootiest old-timer to deny the red-headed stranger at least a modicum of respect. The real question is this: How many Willies are out there? How many acts are going to draw that kind of crowd, and get folks to pay that kind of a price to see them?
    Right before Willie hits the stage, I strike up a conversation with the guy next to me, who’s been talking energetically about UVA basketball’s prospects next season.
    “Oh, they’re going all the way this year,” he assures me. “Only teams that can beat ‘em are Carolina and Duke.”
    I ask if he’s excited by the prospect of seeing the Cavs in the new arena.
    “Oh, no doubt, no doubt. I hear they got, what, 30,000 seats or something? And those Diamond Vision screens. That’s gonna be sweet, bro.”
    And what about concerts?
    “I dunno. Who’s coming?”
    I run down the list, but he doesn’t seem very interested until I mention Kenny Chesney.
    “Oh, Chesney’s coming? Man, I’d like to see that. Probably won’t have the cash, though—got to get my car fixed.”
    So the cost of the ticket might be a
problem?
    “Might be?” The guy laughs and spreads his arms wide, embracing the freeloading crowd on all sides of him. “Look around, bro. Why do you think I’m up here in the first place?”

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