The bar was raised this season at the Gallo Center for the Arts, thanks to a handful of high-profile artists crossing its biggest stage.
John Legend, Itzhak Perlman, Rob Thomas and Jason Mraz helped not only lead the performing-arts center to its best-selling season since opening in 2007, said Chief Executive Officer Lynn Dickerson, but also to a higher cachet when attracting talent for the upcoming 2014-15 season.
It has to mean something, after all, when the most heralded former Beach Boy asks you to reconsider having him play your venue.
That was the case with rock legend Brian Wilson, set for Oct. 9 at the center. Dickerson said she put in a backup offer for Wilson while nervously awaiting an answer from season-opening artist Natalie Cole, who kicks off the new slate of shows Sept. 20. When Cole’s booking finally came through, the offer on Wilson was voided.
“They (Wilson’s people) came back to me and said, ‘You know, he really was intrigued by your market and he really wants to play Modesto,’ ” Dickerson said, adding that she couldn’t pay the same money offered when he was being courted as a season-opening act. She went back with a lower price. “He took a long time to give me an answer on that, but he did eventually accept it.”
Having a current chart-topping R&B star such as Legend play, as well as pop artists Mraz and Thomas and violin virtuoso Perlman, opened doors for the Gallo Center. “All of a sudden, it gives you a lot more bargaining power to get those kinds of artists going forward,” Dickerson said.
Going forward for 2014-15 is a varied lineup of musical entertainers, speakers, comedians, theater productions, cultural artists and shows for kids.
Aside from Wilson and Cole, singers Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Emmylou Harris; violin master Joshua Bell; Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan; comedians George Lopez, Bob Newhart and Paul Reiser; Latino superstar Pepe Aguilar; and a rich lineup of classic-rock groups are but a glance at who will light up the downtown Modesto venue during its eighth season.
Tickets for individual shows go on sale June 9; create-your-own-series subscription sales began Wednesday evening. While Cole is the official season opener in September, several preseason shows are scheduled, beginning in July.
Dickerson is excited about the next season, but said booking it was not without its challenges.
For the first time, six shows fell through after they were confirmed with contracts signed, including one huge artist whose cancellation will make the region’s classic-rock fans want to cry – Roger Daltrey, frontman of The Who.
“It was going to be a very cool show,” she said. “It was going to be kind of a quasi, you know, like an intimate evening with Roger Daltrey ... talking about his years with The Who and all that business and also singing. That was totally confirmed, signed paperwork, everything, and then he changed his mind and decided he was going to do big venues and not performing-arts centers like us.”
The season took another hit in its Broadway series when two shows fell through. The touring production of “Elf” was signed, sealed and ready to be delivered for the first week of December, right before it was set to play a multiweek run in San Francisco. But the San Francisco venue refused to allow the Gallo Center to have the show earlier. “I’m like, ‘You’re kidding me.’ I mean, they have 10 million people, we have half a million people, it’s like worlds apart,” Dickerson said.
The other touring show she tried to bring in, “Billy Elliot,” fell through because of production labor negotiations. That means this season’s Broadway series carries only two multiple-show productions – “Mamma Mia” (Feb. 12-14) and “Sister Act” (March 26-27). A single show of the musical “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” (March 8) also will be offered.
But the rest of the slate is packed with variety.
That previously mentioned classic-rock lineup includes a return of horn-driven band Chicago (Sept. 13), which played a sold-out show at the center in 2012; folk rock band America (Nov. 5); Styx (July 30); Huey Lewis and the News (Sept. 5); KC & the Sunshine Band (Aug. 9); and Jefferson Starship (Feb. 28).
Bringing back Chicago was something of a no-brainer booking for Dickerson.
“We had Chicago a few years ago, and that show sold out quickly, and it was really a great show,” she said. “If you ever see one of those classic-rock shows booked a second time, you can bet that they were really good.” That’s because once in a while, performers who have sold out based on name – and likely nostalgia – have “seen better days.”
“That’s the reason I’m here all the time,” Dickerson said. “I watch these shows and I pay really close attention to how the audience responds to them, you know, whether the quality was good, and Chicago was fabulous. I mean, they still sound just as good as they did in the ’70s, honestly.”
Dickerson – who also does research online and seeks input via Facebook and email focus groups when booking – is equally optimistic about her lineup of country artists. On that bill with Harris (Oct. 1) are Montgomery Gentry (Aug. 14), Neal McCoy (Sept. 10), Collin Raye (Jan. 17) and legend Don Williams (March 5). “I’m hoping we’ll be able to add a young country artist or two,” she said.
Leading the speaker series this season will be Wozniak (Aug. 16), a booking Dickerson said the center lucked into, thanks to Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon, who went to high school with the Apple computer co-founder.
She said Changnon recently ran into Wozniak at their high school reunion and spoke to him about the county schools’ Destination Graduation project – aimed at increasing graduation rates in the region. Changnon asked Wozniak if he’d consider speaking in Modesto. The show is a partnership, and the Gallo Center will share proceeds with Destination Graduation.
“Tom is really the person who made that happen,” Dickerson said.
Also a partnership will be an appearance by “A Series of Unfortunate Events” author Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket (Nov. 16), whose show will partially benefit the Stanislaus County Library Foundation.
Dog whisperer Millan (March 6), Garrison Keillor (Feb. 4), Scott McEwen (Oct. 30) and Christopher Kimball of “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS (Nov. 11) round out the speaker series.
Comedy historically is a big draw at the center, and Dickerson expects the same this year, with Lopez (Sept. 27), Newhart (Sept. 26), Reiser (March 7), the crew from “Whose Live Anyway” (Nov. 14) and “Carol Burnett Show” alum Vicki Lawrence (Jan. 10) leading the laughs. Other comedy shows also are slated, and Dickerson expects to add more to that lineup.
Also making a bigger mark are shows featuring Christian and Latino artists, two audiences Dickerson sought to reach out to more. “Both of those are important target audiences for us,” she said.
“Pepe Aguilar, this is like the John Legend of my season,” she said of the artist who will play the Gallo Center on Sept. 11. “Pepe Aguilar is a big, big deal in the Latino community and I’ve been trying to get him as long as I’ve been booking shows here.”
Christian draws include stars Grant (Feb. 27), Smith (Dec. 1) and comedian Mark Lowry (Oct. 14).
More than 80 acts will play the Gallo Center in 2014-15. Some of the other shows of note include violinst Bell (Oct. 25), Croatian cellists 2Cellos (March 19), ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro (Oct. 29), Tijuana Brass leader Herb Albert (Nov. 9), Billy Ocean (March 3), Buddy Guy (April 9), Lila Downs (April 21), Kidz Bop Kids Live (July 25), Diamond Rio (Dec. 2) and jazz piano legend David Benoit (Dec. 22).
For a full season schedule, see www.galloarts.org.