There was plenty to celebrate in 2012 at the major arts and entertainment venues across the region.
Despite the still-slow economy, the year is ending on a positive note for most. While not every show was a sell-out, people did buy tickets to their favorite acts and enjoyed more choices than ever.
Top draws of 2012 included touring Broadway musical "Mamma Mia" at the Gallo Center for the Arts, "House" star Hugh Laurie at Turlock Community Theatre, classic rocker Ronnie Montrose at Modesto's State Theatre, '80s R&B singer Lisa Lisa at Modesto's Fat Cat Music House & Lounge and country and TV star Reba McEntire at Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys.
Meanwhile, creativity continued to flourish in downtown Modesto. Center Stage Conservatory opened a new downtown venue the Lower Level Studio for live performances, Modesto's first African-American theater group (Sankofa) formed and the Building Imagination Center opened its doors to offer free video production classes, film screenings and art displays.
As in every year, there were setbacks. Some shows flopped and some longtime arts institutions folded. The Slam on Rye monthly poetry slam held at Modesto's Prospect Theater Project ended after 10 years because of declining interest. Longtime Modesto arts advocate and performer Grace Lieberman resigned from the Stanislaus Arts Council a group she helped form 35 years earlier because she hadn't received a salary. While board members continue to meet, the group hasn't engaged in projects since her exit.
The happiest of venues is the Gallo Center, which counted the 2011-12 season ending in June as its best ever. The venue saw$1 million more in tickets sell than in any previous season, said Executive Director Lynn Dickerson, calling the year "hugely successful."
"Mamma Mia" sold the most tickets of any other Broadway musical at the Gallo ever. Other top sellers were Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, classic rock band Chicago, retro music acts Frankie Avalon, Crosby Stills and Nash and Smokey Robinson, comedians and comedy acts Brian Regan, Anjelah Johnson, Mark Lowry and the "Whose Live Anyway" improv show, and Latin acts Mariachi Sol de Mexico, Mariachi Vargas and Ballet Folklorico de Mexico with Amalia Hernandez.
Also packing the house were singers Idina Menzel and kd lang, swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, National Public Radio celebrity Garrison Keillor, entertainer Howie Mandel, illusionist Mike Super, the "Mythbusters" duo, pre-school favorite The Fresh Beat Band, actor Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, ukulele star Jake Shimabukuro, a cappella act Straight No Chaser and Christian rock band Mercy Me.
The Gallo Center did well with its partnership with Prospect Theater Project on "Grapes of Wrath" and Modesto Performing Arts on "A Christmas Carol."
On the downside, some shows drew disappointing turnouts, including the touring musical productions of "Rock of Ages" and "Miracle on 34th Street," Mexican group Conjunto Primavera and comedian Colin Quinn.
Dickerson said she was particularly surprised by "Rock of Ages," which canceled performances due to low ticket sales. "Last summer's movie with Tom Cruise did very poorly at the box office and I believe we suffered from a carry-over effect," she said in an email. "When I booked the show last winter, we were hoping the movie would be the box office hit of the summer. Didn't turn out that way, unfortunately."
Ticket sales in September were slow. "I'm told (now) by those in the industry who have been doing this much longer than I that election years are always detrimental for ticket sales," Dickerson said. "I underestimated the 'election year' effect. But regardless of the elections, I'm going to book much lighter next September. Despite getting off to a slow start in our '12-'13 season, ticket sales have picked up and practically everything we booked in December sold out."
Turlock Community Theatre, by contrast, is having a harder time. "We are still running in the black, but times are definitely tougher right now," said Managing Director Kit Casey, who declined to give specifics. "Ticket sales over all have been significantly lower this year compared to years past. The Turlock Community Theatre has a very supportive local community, however, that helps us with our fund-raising. We are also doing better in terms of more and more local groups renting the Turlock Community Theatre."
The top show and riskiest of the year was "House" TV star Hugh Laurie's blues concert. "Not only was it a sell-out but it was a great show and he was very gracious with our staff and the fans," Casey said. The show was a gamble since Laurie had no real track record as a touring musician.
Casey was saddened by the poor turnout for Michael Cavanaugh, former star of Broadway's "Movin' Out," who sang hits of Billy Joel and Elton John. "Michael was one of the most talented musicians we have ever had on our stage. It was a truly great performance."
The year went "quite well" for the State Theatre, said director Sue Richardson. She didn't provide details but said the nonprofit exceeded projections for number of films screened, programs initiated and the number of rentals hosted. "The growth is steady and upward and we've kept costs contained," she said.
The top sellers were horn-driven R&B band Tower of Power and classic rocker Ronnie Montrose, who performed at the State in February, only a month before his tragic death by suicide. Other audience favorites were country band Asleep at the Wheel, country-rock-Mexican act the Texas Tornados and roots band Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks.
The most popular films were "The Artist," the 2011 Oscar winner for best picture; "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."
The State has been gratified by the response to its 2-year-old youth education program, which offers free performances and films to area schools. The goal is to help fill the gap with schools that have limited arts education programs or eliminated them altogether.
This year, 4,000 children from Stanislaus County and surrounding areas attended programs that included storytelling, the Kenn Adams' Adventure Theatre (improv) and The Alley Cats (doo-wop, dance, music). This spring, the State will present a poetry slam, an after-school student film festival and an appearance by Lucasfilm designers who will discuss the making of "The Avengers." In January, the State will launch its Science On Screen program that pairs popular Hollywood films with talks on science.
The State had setbacks this year with films and events that didn't sell. "It's all about knowing the market, and when we book outside of what we know will sell in our area, well, predictably, we have a flop on our hands," Richardson said in an email. "We staged a huge Halloween event for kids and were disappointed with the turnout. And there were two concerts that we're looking forward to seeing in the rear view mirror. Nothing too bad and fortunately, we learn from our mistakes!"
The Fat Cat Music House & Lounge in downtown Modesto had markedly better year financially in 2012 than in 2011, said manager Chris Ricci. "However, like most businesses in our region the continuing high unemployment figures have created a challenging environment," he said in an email. "This is especially true in the nightclub demographic of 21-34 where unemployment has been as high as 35 percent in Stanislaus County."
The best attended events of the year were old school R&B stars Lisa Lisa ("Head to Toe") and Stevie B ("Because I Love You/The Postman Song)," classic rock act Y&T and Mexican pop act Bronco. The Fat Cat had big crowds during the downtown festivals such as X-Fest, Lucky Fest and Tresetti's Fat Tuesday.
But crowds have slowed for dancing to DJs. "Over the past 48 months, we've seen a 60 percent drop in dance revenues," Ricci said. "The trend is industry-wide in Modesto."
Ironstone Vineyards' summer concert series in Murphys did well considering the economy, said Brian Rohrer, general manager. He declined to give attendance figures but said they were less than he would want. He wishes he would have seen 1,000 more people at each concert in the 6,500-capacity venue.
It's much harder to attract audiences these days, he said, because there are many more shows offered in the region than ever before. "That's a testament to the quality of entertainment offered from Modesto to Sacramento east up into the foothills," he said.
Ironstone's biggest hit of the summer was country megastar Reba McEntire, who stars in the ABC TV sitcom "Malibu Country." Another big draw was the unique pairing of 86-year-old crooner Tony Bennett with 12-year-old singer Jackie Evancho. "That was the one show that the high-end tickets and reserve tickets sold the most," Rohrer said. "That drew a different type of crowd. People came from all over the world to see that show. We had some people from Europe and people from the East Coast."
Rohrer was surprised that pop star Kelly Clarkson didn't sell more. While it wasn't a flop, he expected bigger crowds. "She's such a dynamic performer and she put on an incredible show," he said. "I think (the poor turnout) was due to the fact it was her tour, and her tour had saturated Northern California. She had already played in the Bay Area."
It means that all venues have to consider carefully where the artists have played and are planning to play nearby before booking an artist. "I see it as a positive for the region that there's so much entertainment available," he said. "It doesn't scare us. We love to provide this for the community."
Stockton Arena staff didn't respond to phone or email requests for an interview about its big sellers. The 10,000-seat venue's bookings this year included country stars Alan Jackson, classic rock acts Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Doobie Brothers and Cirque du Soleil.