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Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall ranked best little venue in the world

CLEARWATER — From Riverdance to Joan Rivers, a galaxy of stars and theatrical productions has shone on the main stage at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Now the venue itself is in the spotlight.

The 2,180-seat performing arts center has been ranked No. 1 worldwide for 2009 among venues with 2,500 seats or fewer. That's according to Billboard magazine's 2009 year-end issue, which ranked facilities around the world according to gross ticket sales.

Based on the report, the entertainment hall's gross ticket receipts topped $10-million from a total 173 performances — 26 of which were sellouts — between December 2008 and November 2009.

All this was in spite of the dreary economy, which resulted in a 15 percent slump in ticket sales for the venue during 2009.

"What this ranking tells me is that we have the right programming despite the economic challenges," said Robert Freedman, president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall, which is in its 27th season at 1111 N McMullen Booth Road.

In addition, favorable demographics, physical design and location work together to make Ruth Eckerd Hall an industry leader, he said.

First, the programming.

Last year, Ruth Eckerd Hall packed in audiences with shows like The Color Purple, Mamma Mia!, Willie Nelson and Yo-Yo Ma.

Up next?

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Gladys Knight, A Chorus Line, Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance and much more — and that's just for February.

"We work hard on who we book and how we book," Freedman said.

He said the theater staff concentrates on album releases, rankings in Billboard and who's making the rounds on the television talk shows.

"We pay attention and see what kind of buzz they're making," he said. "Sometimes we initiate the artists coming here."

To make that happen, the center might create a Florida circuit with other venues such as Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts and West Palm's Kravis Center.

Also at play, the area's demographics with plenty of retirees, snowbirds, and families to draw from.

The center strives to offer a diverse lineup that includes rock, pop, country, musicals, acrobat and dancing acts, community performances, school-time plays and holiday programming.

It also benefits from having ample parking and a prime location off McMullen-Booth Road, a six-lane corridor that connects north and south Pinellas via the Bayside Bridge.

That gives patrons the ability to "arrive at a reasonable time and park without having to walk too far," Freedman said.

But perhaps Ruth Eckerd Hall's biggest appeal is the facility itself.

The $14.5 million facility opened in 1983 with its first official performance, the Suzuki Children of Japan.

It was designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation; the auditorium is said to be acoustically perfect.

Between 2001 and 2003, the center underwent an $18 million renovation which included plush, teal-colored seating, new carpeting and curtain in the main auditorium. New restrooms were added along with a grand concourse to connect the East and West lobbies. The Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute, the educational arm of the performing arts center, was also created.

The intimate design of the main auditorium utilizes steep, continental-style seating without center aisles, which allows for optimal viewing and fewer bottlenecks after a show.

"It's one of the safest theaters to be in," said Freedman. "It fully exits in four minutes."

And the design makes for great synergy between fans and performers, he said.

"An artist comes out and can virtually look into everyone's eyes up to the back row," he said. "It really makes coming here special."

Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at treeves@tampabay.rr.com.

. Fast facts

Ruth Eckerd rankings

Other 2009 rankings for Ruth Eckerd Hall include:

No. 9 in the world for venues having 5,000 seats or fewer (Billboard)

No. 8 globally for venues having 5,000 seats or fewer for the decade (Billboard).

No. 2 worldwide among theatre venues having 2,500 seats or fewer (Pollstar).

No. 18 among world venues having 10,000 seats or fewer (Pollstar).

Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall ranked best little venue in the world 02/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 4, 2010 8:00pm]

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