After several years of too many dark nights at the Mahaffey Theater, it appeared Bill Edwards might have the Midas touch needed to revive the struggling venue.
Eighteen months into his five-year contract to run the city-owned facility, Edwards is getting rave reviews from elected officials and patrons.
The theater appears to be in better financial shape. For years, the Mahaffey has required taxpayer money to survive and Edwards already has reduced the public subsidy by $59,000. The Florida Orchestra, which calls the theater its home, is happier under his "smarter" management, said orchestra president Michael Pastreich.
But Edwards' touch has gone only so far.
His Big 3 Entertainment management company, which promised to bring in more events, has fewer shows scheduled today than this time last year. And while attendance is up, thousands of people went to ticketed events for free in 2012.
The Mahaffey has always landed fewer acts and drawn smaller crowds than the Straz Center or Ruth Eckerd Hall, both of which have bigger endowments to pay for top performers and stronger track records in the entertainment industry.
But Edwards, 68, has deep and open pockets. A self-made mortgage magnate, he donated $4.6 million to help Tampa host the Republican National Convention. He rescued the Club at Treasure Island from bankruptcy in 2009. Two years later, he bought the struggling BayWalk shopping plaza, promising to revive it.
In April 2011, the city chose his company to run the Mahaffey over bids from Ruth Eckerd and the theater's previous manager, SMG. Edwards quickly poured $2 million of his own money into remaking the Mahaffey.
But based on attendance figures, ticket sales, and the theater's calendar, the physical makeover has proved easier than filling seats and rehabilitating Mahaffey's reputation in the entertainment industry. Edwards declined to be interviewed for this story, as did all but two of the 18 people currently on the Mahaffey Foundation's board.
This time last year, the 2,031-seat theater's website promoted 17 upcoming shows, not including performances by the Florida Orchestra. Now, there are 10.
Currently, the 2,200-seat Ruth Eckerd Hall has 36 shows on its calendar. The Straz, with 2,610 seats in its largest music hall, and a virtual lock on touring Broadway shows, has 81.
Edwards has said his second year would be better because Big 3 would have more lead time to book acts.
"I had hoped this year would be bigger than last year," said City Council member Karl Nurse. "I can tell from the number of concerts and some concerts being canceled it's a little soft.
"It's similar to the Rays, even though the economy is better paychecks are still limited."
Yet Nurse still had plenty of praise for Edwards and said he thinks the caliber of shows is much better. Mahaffey is operating in a competitive environment, he added, pointing to free events in public parks and its rivalry with Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Last year, Edwards hired former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker to be president of The Edwards Group, which oversees Big 3.
Baker wrote in an email that "Big 3 is focused on quality marquee shows that rebuild awareness and the local audience base."
He would not, however, comment on the lighter calendar looking forward. He did note that comparisons of the first five months of the past three fiscal years show Big 3's progress.
SMG booked 21 non-orchestra, ticketed events in 2011 compared with Big 3's 34 acts in 2012, he said. Over the same period in 2013, there have been 31, he said.
Baker's count, however, includes the University of South Florida's graduation ceremony, a concert by local high school bands and six one-hour audition sessions for the Wheel of Fortune, sans the show's stars. Attendees paid for parking and concessions, which bring the city money, but these weren't events booked for the general public.
Graduations and TV show tapings don't carry much weight with agents and performers. Fewer acts beget smaller crowds and that, in turn, begets fewer acts.
"Promoters want to see how active a venue is by how many shows they have booked," said Brad Rogers, spokesman for Pollstar Magazine, a leading publication in the touring industry. "They like to see who's playing where."
Papering the house
Most theaters give out free tickets when shows are underselling — it's a long-standing practice known as "papering the house."
"That's sort of a standard in the industry," said Paul Wilborn, executive director of St. Petersburg's Palladium Theater, which has 850 seats. "If I've got an empty seat it's better for me to have a body sitting in it than nobody sitting in it."
At the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year, Big 3 told the city that about 192,500 people had visited the Mahaffey, including those who came for free educational programs, private events, such as weddings, and ticketed performances. Based on Big 3's reports to the city, ticketed performances attracted roughly 98,000 people.
In an earlier interview, Edwards told the Times that 80,000 tickets had been sold for Mahaffey events last year, suggesting that some 18,000 tickets were given away.
Performances by Diana Ross, Penn & Teller, and Gladys Knight nearly sold out. But more tickets were given away than sold for singers Roberta Flack, Shirley Jones and Tommy Tune.
"Tickets are given out to corporate sponsors, charitable organizations and community partners in furtherance of our desire to engage the community with the theater," Baker said, declining to specify how many were distributed for free.
Truth in advertising
In late January, Edwards announced plans to eliminate pesky ticket fees that drive up prices by roughly $9 per ticket. He hoped to make up the lost revenue — an estimated $360,000 in total — by selling more tickets to people put off by surcharges.
"I subscribe to truth in advertising and full disclosure. The advertised price should be what the community pays," Edwards stated at the time.
Edwards acknowledged it was a gamble, but he didn't say the cash he was playing with was not his own.
The city gets 45 percent of ticket fee revenue, which amounted to $160,642 last year. The rest goes to the nonprofit Mahaffey Foundation, which raises money for the theater and, last year, took over selling tickets and bought a marketing and ticketing system. According to board member Michelle Ligon, the foundation approved Edwards' decision. The City Council wasn't consulted.
David Metz, who oversees the Mahaffey for the city, said he is "optimistic" that St. Petersburg will recoup the lost revenue. Cheaper tickets could mean more visitors, who could spend more money on food, drinks, and parking — money that goes into city coffers.
"I would say ending those fees is going to be productive," said City Council member Wengay Newton, who was unaware the city got a percentage of ticket fees. "Can we cry about $160,000 when he put $2 million of his own money in there? If he wasn't doing all that he was doing, I'd have a major problem with it."
The loss of ticket fee revenue could be more problematic for the foundation.
"It is a part of our revenue source and that's where we derive most of our funding for our foundation," said Ligon, a Tampa Bay real estate developer. The organization has raised its membership fees slightly in hopes of bringing in more revenue, she added.
To fill its seats, Big 3 has stepped up marketing efforts with more advertising and a steady stream of emails to patrons. It has even taken a cue from the mortgage company Edwards recently sold and is cold-calling area residents to tell them about upcoming acts.
But Big 3 has largely ignored a mainstream marketing tool in the entertainment industry. Last year, the company reported ticket sales for only 12 performances to Pollstar Magazine, which has a weekly readership of 20,000 promoters, artist managers and others in the industry.
Similarly, only two 2012 shows were reported to a competing magazine, Venues Today.
Straz Center and Ruth Eckerd Hall officials said they report ticket sales for all events to both magazines, which are widely used as a barometer for measuring venues and performers.
"For the venue it's used as free marketing and exposure," said Josh Huckabee, of Venues Today. "If you're not in here, you're not creating a buzz."
Baker declined to comment on why Big 3 doesn't report more box office sales.
While the Mahaffey doesn't seem concerned with its national profile, locally, patrons seem pleased.
"What's not to like? It's beautiful," said Wanda Parker, a St. Petersburg resident who attended a recent performance of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band. "He's booking more relevant acts," said Fred Levy, a patron and foundation member.
"It's a beautiful theater and there are more shows we like," he said. But, "I would like him to book more."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.