Public gets first look at Gallo Center

08/19/2007 12:00 AM

08/19/2007 1:44 PM

The theater seats were covered in plastic, some scaffolding was still up and piles of lumber and cardboard were stacked in the corners.

But those who took the free public tours of the Gallo Center for the Arts Saturday during the Modesto Art & Wine Festival didn't care. They were too excited that Modesto finally was getting a state-of-the art performance venue.

"I think it looks so awesome," said 16-year-old Alicia Tirre as she walked across the 1,251-seat Mary Stuart Rogers Theater stage. "I would be so happy to see a performance here."

More than 4,000 people visited the center during the tours, which began at 10 a.m. and lasted for 12 hours, said customer service director John Turchon.

"I knew we would have interest, but I didn't know it would be so large and with such enthusiasm," Turchon said, adding that the crowds were "way beyond" what he expected.

People waited in line up to 10 minutes to take the guided tours. They were led in groups of 15 to 25 by volunteers dressed in matching dark blue vests with the Gallo center logo and black slacks or skirts. Groups went through the Rogers Theater, the 444-seat Foster Family Theater, the dressing rooms and the lobby.

Some guides read from scripts; others added trivia tidbits, including background on major donors and the resident companies.

All went over the basics, explaining that the center is owned by Stanislaus County and operated by a nonprofit, that the first performances are in September and that none of the seats are farther than 100 feet from the stage.

That last fact was welcome news to Dana Alday.

"You don't have to bring opera binoculars," said the 48-year-old Modesto resident.

She also was excited about the orchestra pit, which can move up and down.

A few people on the tours expressed concern at how much work remains to be done before the opening, but most had nothing but compliments for the venue.

"It's better than I thought it would be," said Duward Lawson, 74, of Modesto. "I thought they'd do a good job, but they did an outstanding job."

Mercedes Hart, a 30-year resident of Modesto, said she is proud that the city finally is getting such a beautiful performing arts venue. As for critics who think the arts center is a white elephant, Hart, 79, said they need it the most.

"They need to get in touch with the pleasures of the soul," she said.

Local performance groups, including Central West Ballet, Townsend Opera Players and the River Lights Chorus, staged shows in the lobby all day. Linda McKenzie, a member of the chorus, was thrilled that her group was the first to perform at the center.

"It's fabulous," said the 65-year-old Salida resident. "The sound in there is marvelous."

Saturday also marked the opening of the center's lobby box office and the closing of its temporary box office at Tenth Street Place. It also was the first time people could buy most individual tickets. Before then, all that was for sale was season subscription packages and grand opening week headliners.

More than 2,000 tickets were sold throughout the day, Turchon said.

Sonja Perino, 60, had hoped to order her tickets by phone Saturday, but gave up after getting a busy signal for hours. The Modesto resident ended up waiting in line at the arts center, hoping to buy tickets to Central West Ballet's May production of "Cinderella" in the Rogers Theater.

Right behind her, Linda Beardsley, 66, was waiting for tickets for the Modesto Symphony Orchestra's March concert featuring veterans of "Phantom of the Opera" and Townsend Opera Players' February staging of "Porgy and Bess." She regretted that she wasn't quick enough to get tickets to the September Tony Bennett concert.

Known for his hit song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," the 80-year-old multi-Grammy Award winner hasn't sold out but the arts center isn't taking more orders because the remaining seats are reserved for donors.

Not everyone was sad about missing out on a chance to see the crooner, however.

"Who's Tony Bennett?" asked teenager Alicia Tirre as she toured the arts center with her family.

The Gallo Center for the Arts, 10th and I streets in Modesto, holds its grand opening gala Sept. 27.

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