The Curtain Rises on Gallo Center

A glamorously dressed crowd, many in sparkling gowns and tuxedos, celebrated the grand opening of the Gallo Center for the Arts on Thursday.

Excited and thrilled to finally see 10 years of work come to fruition, they filled up most of the center's 1,252-seat Rogers Theater to hear the Modesto Symphony Orchestra and watch Tony Award-winning Broadway star Patti LuPone belt out show tunes.

Reporters from Sacramento TV stations and several valley newspapers interviewed guests as they entered the arts center. About 250 people at Tenth Street Plaza a few blocks away watched the show on a Jumbotron video screen.

Marie Gallo, the arts center president, was surrounded by well-wishers who congratulated her on a job well done the moment she arrived.

"I feel a sense of joy and gratitude, an inexpressible feeling," she said during a brief break between hugging her many friends.

Fred Silva, the arts center chairman, was all smiles as he looked around at the happy people milling in the lobby before the show.

"Everything is better than I expected," he said. "We completed everything on time. It's the realization of a lot of people's dreams."

The $40 million venue is a dream that has been a long time coming. Modestans started talking decades ago about building an arts center. Curtains Up '88 was an unsuccessful drive to build a performing-arts complex at Modesto Centre Plaza.

"I never thought it would happen," said Florence Broden, a senior citizen who attended the gala and a resident of Modesto since 1940. "I think we've grown big enough. We have a population now that's interested in the fine arts."

For decades, the city's arts scene was dominated by community groups that performed in auditoriums at high schools and Modesto Junior College. Occasionally, touring performers and shows would use those venues or perform at the State Theatre.

But the existing theaters weren't adequate to accommodate all the arts events the community wanted. Students had to compete with local performance groups for time in school auditoriums. The theaters didn't have the sound and lighting equipment or enough backstage space.

"For me to see a cultural arts center like this come to this area is fantastic," said Dr. Bob O'Connor, a Modesto veterinarian who has missed the arts opportunities he had in his native New York City.

The drive for the Gallo Center dates back to spring 1997 when then-Mayor Dick Lang asked Gallo to lead a team that would investigate the feasibility of building a performing-arts center.

A pianist since her youth, Gallo was eager to work on the project because she has loved the arts all her life. She and other supporters began by visiting performance venues around the country, including the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Ark., the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis.

The group announced plans for a state-of-the-art venue that would be funded by a private/public partnership. While the city declined to participate except for funding street improvements and some landscaping, Stanislaus County agreed to contribute $15 million in land and money and became the owner of the building.

Gallo, who is married to Bob Gallo, son of winery co-founder Julio, convinced her powerful family to donate $10 million toward an endowment, with the promise of naming rights to the center.

The Mary Stuart Rogers Foundation contributed $5 million toward the endowment, getting naming rights to the larger 1,252-seat theater, while the Foster family donated $3 million toward construction, becoming the namesake for the smaller 444-seat theater. The state of California kicked in $1 million.

The rest of the money was largely funded by more than 3,400 individuals and businesses. The Lucas family, including famed "Star Wars" moviemaker and Modesto native son George, was among several donors who contributed more than $500,000. Domestic-arts queen Martha Stewart, a friend of Marie Gallo's who has business relations with the winery, contributed $10,000.

But there were many setbacks along the way before the arts center got off the ground. Voters rejected an increase in the hotel/motel tax in 2000 that would have provided dedicated revenues to the project. Plans for a rotunda and an art gallery were scrapped when bids for construction came in way over budget.

After the groundbreaking in April 2004, construction was delayed in part because of the discovery of slabs of concrete during the excavation, rain and a broken gas main.

The arts center also lost several key people through staff changes and deaths. The first two executive directors left their positions after a year; Michael Grice departed in 2004 because the board would not let him pursue artistic projects outside the Gallo Center, and Brian McCurdy left last year to take a job running a performing-arts center at Purchase College, State University of New York. Bob Cardoza, the arts center's first chairman, died of cancer in 2002, and Dick Lang, who got the project going, died in 2004.

Now, the Gallo Center should be one of the busiest entertainment venues in the region. More than 100 programs have been booked through June, including classical, world, jazz and gospel concerts, touring Broadway shows and Latin entertainment.

"It's pretty incredible," said 16-year-old Kirstin O'Connor, who attended Thursday's gala with her veterinarian father. "It's something I hope I will be going to a lot, hopefully with my dad."

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