Ruth Eckerd Hall prides itself on its eclectic programming. "We're not just a Broadway house. We're not just a pop house. We're not just a classical music house,'' said Robert Freedman, chief executive of the Clearwater venue.
The hall's offerings for the 2010-11 season range from top-level modern dance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Paul Taylor Dance Company to oldies acts Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Frankie Avalon to artists such as country singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson and comic Margaret Cho to middle-of-the-road staples Carol Burnett and Engelbert Humperdinck. The Broadway series was previously announced, including the addition a few weeks ago of "An Evening With Al Pacino."
The variety show format works. Recently, a pair of show business trade magazines, Pollstar and Venues Today, ranked Ruth Eckerd Hall among the top 15 venues in the world that have 5,000 seats or fewer.
One trend in Ruth Eckerd presentations is the increasing number being staged away from its 2,180-seat main hall. Next season, there will be more than ever at smaller facilities, such as the Capitol Theatre (470 seats) in downtown Clearwater and the Murray Studio Theater (182 seats) in the hall's education wing.
A concert by Broadway star Sutton Foster (The Drowsy Chaperone, Thoroughly Modern Millie) is one of the Capitol highlights. "I don't think we could have presented Sutton in the 2,000-seat theater, but this gives us an opportunity to introduce her to the community,'' Freedman said.
Last season, upwards of a dozen shows played to virtually full houses at the Capitol. The 2010-11 lineup there includes Judy Collins, Janis Ian and Natalia Zukerman, Linda Eder and Van Cliburn Competition gold medalist Nobuyuki Tsujii, a blind pianist from Japan.
Absent from the Capitol next season will be the screenings of recent performances from England's National Theatre, such as last fall's production of Racine's Phedre with Helen Mirren. "We had to give it up. We weren't getting any turnout,'' Freedman said.
The Murray has several series. "When we opened the Murray we didn't anticipate doing any performances there,'' Freedman said. "We built it as a theater lab. We found we were able to start squeezing some performances into the Murray. Now it's one of our busiest spaces.''
Freedman touts David Gonzalez, who will appear on both the Family Theater Series and the Evening at the Murray series next season. A new series called Emerge at the Murray showcases performers such as Curtis Belz in Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop.
Ruth Eckerd is presenting more Sunday matinees than in the past, including a touring production of Tosca and a ballroom dance show hosted by Cloris Leachman. The Adults at Leisure series, aimed at a senior audience, continues to have matinees. Next season's schedule includes Barbra Streisand's kid sister, singer Roslyn Kind, and Mitzi Gaynor in Razzle Dazzle: My Life Behind the Sequins.
Along with the shows on its 2010-11 schedule, Ruth Eckerd expects to have as many as 25 more pop and rock concerts and other shows that will be booked later.
On its website, Ruth Eckerd has a banner that says "The Coast is Clear'' and links to an update that there is no impact from the gulf oil spill on bay area beaches. "We know from research that the No. 1 reason people come to Pinellas County is the beaches,'' Freedman said. "The No. 2 reason is cultural tourism. So there's a strong relationship there.''
Freedman said he can't worry about the oil spill and how it may affect the hall's business. "We have no indication from all the reports that the oil spill is ever going to reach Pinellas County. The perception is an issue — always. But I'm not sitting here fretting over it. We don't have any control over it.''
One project stalled by the poor economy has been fundraising for the $6.8 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre. "We are still in what I would have to call the quiet, planning phase of the campaign,'' Freedman said. "Somewhere in the next six to eight months I think we'll be back on track.'' The city of Clearwater has committed $3.8 million to the renovation, mainly from its share of Penny for Pinellas funding.
The economic woes don't seem to have particularly affected ticket prices. At least seven performances have top tickets of more than $100, with seats at the Pacino show running as high as $250. Others with three-figure tickets (usually for VIP packages) include Frankie Valli; Amy Grant and Vince Gill; Don Rickles and Joan Rivers; Bowzer's Holiday Oldies Party; and Ballroom With a Twist.
"The ticket price is reflective of what it costs us to bring that particular artist into the building, the fee and production costs,'' Freedman said. "If there's a trend, it's that the cost of presenting artists is going up. (In a recession) you'd think it would be in the opposite direction, but you're still going to get those artists who are going to draw, no matter what the economic conditions are. They're selling tickets, so they don't see any reason to adjust their fees.''
One casualty has been symphony orchestras, whose high cost Ruth Eckerd and other presenters used to be able to subsidize with public funding, much of which has dried up in the recession. The only orchestra on the schedule is the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, conducted by Keith Lockhart and featuring Broadway stars Kelli O'Hara (South Pacific) and Brian D'Arcy James (Shrek the Musical) in a Cole Porter tribute, with tickets from $63 to $128.
"What is missing, aside from the Boston Pops, is another orchestra,'' Freedman said. "I just wasn't able to find anything that got my juices flowing.''
Ruth Eckerd members, the 6,000 or so people who have contributed at least $60 to the hall, may order tickets now. Tickets go on sale to the public on Aug. 28.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.