ST. PETERSBURG — Take a new manager, mix in $2 million, add 34 extra shows, upgrade dressing rooms and sprinkle with a dash of coconut mango. This seems to be Bill Edwards' recipe for success at Mahaffey Theater.
Since his Big 3 Entertainment started running the city-owned facility in October, 80,000 patrons have come through the doors. That's a 21 percent increase over the same period 12 months earlier and does not include Florida Orchestra attendance. Big 3 has invested more than $2 million of private money into the venue for everything from new carpet to little details like pumping the scent of coconut mango through the air.
The city spent $1.4 million to run and upgrade the theater during its last fiscal year.
Mahaffey hosted an average of 36 main stage shows a year for the past five years, not counting Florida Orchestra concerts. Big 3 has already booked 42 shows, and Edwards expects to present a total of 60 by the end of his first 12 months in charge. He wants to double the number of school students who visit programs at the theater to 50,000 a year. Big 3 has also started a membership program selling various packages of tickets and perks for $100 and up.
Starting in October, a Titanic exhibit will fill 6,000 square feet on the theater's second floor with artifacts recovered from the luxury liner that sank 100 years ago. Edwards expects about 100,000 people to visit during the five-month engagement. The same collection will be displayed in Chicago, Toronto and San Diego.
While talking to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board this week, Edwards and his managing director Joe Jimenez pointed out that the true test of their bookings will not happen until 2013, when they have attendance data from 2012 to show entertainment agents.
"Agents don't care how much money you put on the table," Edwards said, if there is a chance the venue won't be full and their client won't shine. The first thing they want to know when trying to book their act is previous attendance numbers for a comparable act. Many aren't interested in coming to St. Petersburg when they hear numbers from the pre-Edwards reign, he said.
At least one entertainer who did play Mahaffey in the past vowed never to return based on the dismal dressing rooms. Edwards didn't name the star but said the new furniture, lighting, floors and more upgrades in the renovated dressing rooms make a big difference if it's an entertainer's first and only impression during a three- or four-hour stop in St. Petersburg.
The city and Mahaffey will get national exposure when America's Got Talent holds auditions at the theater April 2, 3 and 4. When the auditions judged by Nick Cannon, Sharon Osbourne, Howie Mandel and Howard Stern are aired shortly after taping, there will most likely be footage of the city itself.
"I think with that overview shot of the Dalí, Mahaffey and the waterfront, it's fabulous," Jimenez said.
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (729) 893-8785 or [email protected]