As a theater grows up, success and struggle add to the drama

Gallo Center for the Arts, Modesto, CA
Gallo Center for the Arts, Modesto, CA Modesto Bee

DAVIS -- Celebrating its fifth birthday this fall, the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts is by all accounts a hit.

Part of the University of California at Davis, it has added to the sophistication of the community, increased business for its downtown neighbors and inspired young people.

"It's made Davis a different kind of destination," said Maria Ogrydziak, president of the Davis Downtown Business Association. "The Mondavi Center brings in world-class performers and events, so that rubs off on everything else in the community. It brings people to Davis to then come and shop and have dinner downtown."

Backers of the Gallo Center for the Arts in downtown Modesto are crossing their fingers that they'll have the same experience.

The Gallo center board studied the Mondavi center extensively as part of its planning process and even hired its executive director, Brian McCurdy. He led the Modesto venue for less than a year before moving to New York in the fall of 2006.

While the Modesto arts center lacks the university setting, the two venues have many similarities. Both have two theaters, are intended to host a variety of entertainment from plays to concerts and received significant funding from a prominent winemaking family.

Both also are presenting about 70 events this season in addition to hosting local performances. In fact, the centers have booked several of the same acts. Gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama, Celtic band Leahy and circus show Cirque-Works Birdhouse Factory are among the performers visiting both places this season.

Centers have similar budgets

Situated just off Interstate 80 on the edge of the university, the $57 million Davis center was named after vintner Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit, who donated $35 million for construction of the center and a planned institute for wine and food science.

The Mondavi center operates on an annual budget of $7 million, receiving 40 percent from ticket sales and the rest from UC Davis, theater rentals, donations, grants and more, said Joe Martin, its public relations manager. The center has made its budget goals every year, he said.

By comparison, the Gallo center cost about $40 million and was largely funded by Stanislaus County, which contributed $15 million, and donations from 3,400 residents and businesses. It also has a $15 million endowment -- $10 million from the Gallo families and $5 million from the Mary Stuart Rogers Foundation.

The Gallo center will operate on a $6.5 million budget, with about 46 percent coming from ticket sales and rental fees, and the rest coming from endowment interest income and private donations.

As with the Gallo center, the Mondavi center attracted its share of critics before it opened.

"There were the naysayers that said Davis is too small and people aren't going to come," Martin said.

But phones rang off the hook the minute the box office opened, and shows sold out quickly. To the surprise of many residents, nearly half the people who bought tickets came from Sacramento, where people have many entertainment options.

Attendance was 135,000 the first year and dropped to 90,000 in subsequent years as the center scaled back its schedule from 115 events to about 70.

Martin said the center booked more shows the first year to attract interest and always planned to cut back its programs. The Gallo center is projecting an opening year attendance of 80,000, said Dave Pier, executive director.

A diverse group of people turns out for shows in Davis, with senior citizens preferring orchestra concerts, for example, and young couples in their 20s and 30s heading for salsa concerts, Martin said.

Unlike the Gallo center, which is in the middle of downtown, the Mondavi center is more isolated, hidden on the edge of campus with nothing but school buildings, a parking garage and the interstate in view. Though restaurants are less than a half-mile away, it's not obvious where they are to someone unfamiliar with the area.

Restaurants gain patronage

Still, Mondavi patrons manage to find them. Forty percent of the people who attend a show at the arts center go out to eat, Martin said, adding that there are 36,000 visits to restaurants over the course of a season.

New, high-profile restaurants, such as Bistro 33, have opened since the Mondavi center came on the scene.

"They wouldn't be doing that if they didn't have demand," Martin said.

Fuzio's on First Street is among eight restaurants offering a discount to Mondavi patrons in exchange for a listing in its programs and on its Web site.

"We get a nice response," said John Lear, the restaurant's manager. "It's a good demographic to go after. To afford Mondavi tickets, you have to have an income."

But they fall pretty much in line with other venues. For instance, tickets for the Blind Boys range from $19.50 to $49 in Davis while they range from $18 to $30 in Modesto.

Pru Mendez, owner of Tucos Wine Bar & Café on G Street, was more muted but still positive about the benefits of catering to the arts center crowd. Tucos is one of the restaurants on the Mondavi center Web site.

"Is it a big sustainable thing that drives my business? No," he said. "It does help my dinner on the nights there is a show, depending on how popular it is."

There's no word if the Modesto Fuzio's or other restaurants in town will be offering similar discounts to Gallo center patrons.

Music soars with move to hall

The center has given the university's music, theater and dance departments a glorious new home and has, in turn, increased student interest. Last spring, 54 music majors graduated from the university, up from five or six not long ago, said Jessie Ann Owens, a music professor and dean of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies.

Freeborn Hall, where music students previously performed, was not suited for concerts, she said. "It was more of a multipurpose auditorium," Owens said. "It was kind of embarrassing."

Attendance went up significantly the first year after the move, from an average of 400 to 500 for a UC Davis Symphony concert in Freeborn to three times that in Mondavi because of the beauty of the venue.

The Mondavi center was a major factor in Owens' decision to move to Davis from Brandeis University, near Boston.

Martin said the chancellor's vision was that the arts should be a part of "every thinking person's life," not just that of arts faculty and students.

"Even if you're a biochemist, you can see a great dance program and get something out of it," Martin said.

The Mondavi center also has reached out to young people, hosting 19 school matinees last season for more than 20,000 students and presenting talks about shows with 1,800 students.

Young people have been able to perform at the center in such events as all-city orchestra concerts. The kids love it, said Marjorie McBee, a piano teacher in Davis.

Arts education also is a cornerstone of the Gallo center, with school matinees planned and youth performing at the venue through such community groups as Townsend Opera Players and the Youth Entertainment Stage Company.

Kids love performing at the Mondavi center, McBee said.

"They think it's the biggest deal because their parents take them to see performances there," she said. "For them to perform on a stage where Itzhak Perlman performs, it's a neat experience."

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or lmillegan@modbee.com.