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Playing their songs

Judy Collins strode onto the stage, resplendent in a sparkling white satin gown.

Her figure was model-thin and her long, wavy hair was pulled back elegantly in two large barrettes. She picked up her guitar, smiled at the 393 people in the darkened Largo Cultural Center, and launched into one of her signature songs, still hitting all the high notes.

Bows and flows of angel hair

And ice cream castles in the air

And feather canyons everywhere

I've looked at clouds that way...

The audience sang along. Most had first heard the song in their high school or university days, and they still love it.

Since the fall of 2003, the venue has tried to court these baby boomers, enticing them with acts such as Collins and Eric Burdon and the Animals. Both shows sold so many tickets that side seats had to be added in the 333-seat theater.

It is a calculated effort by the venue to provide more acts that appeal to middle age and older people while continuing to offer a variety of jazz, swing, rock and children's events.

"The center conducted surveys and had focus groups and what we were looking at, there was a need to add more shows targeted to the baby boomers," said Linda Walburn, Largo Cultural Center communications and marketing specialist. "But we will continue to offer the same diversity the center is known for. It's a new direction, but we're not getting rid of the old."

Colin Bissett, Largo Cultural Center manager, said he met with the Citizen's Academy, a group of residents who want to learn more about how city government operates, and another group of 15 randomly selected people, and asked them what kind of shows they would like to see.

"There was a clear indication that people wanted more quality acts and were willing to pay more to see them," he said. "We scored high on things like parking, safety and service, but there was a sense and a feel that they wanted more for the baby boomers."

Demographers say boomers are the most affluent, best-educated and most sophisticated of purchasers.

And they like music.

"It's my period of time," said Gay Gentry, 60, a Largo city commissioner who had come to see Collins sing. "I was in college in the '60s. Her voice is gorgeous and she's beautiful."

But Bissett said he could never afford to book a singer such as Collins unless it was under special circumstances. It turned out she was going to be in the area, so he started working the phones.

"It was a very tough negotiation," he said. "We did a "pickup.' She was here on her way to Sarasota to (perform) at the Van Wezel."

Performing with Arlo Guthrie, she did not sell out the 1,736-seat Van Wezel as of Friday afternoon. Four hundred tickets were still available.

Bissett said fees for singers like Collins typically are about $25,000 or more, but because of the pickup, "we got her for much less."

Concertgoers paid between $37 and $39 for their tickets.

Even tribute bands are doing well at the center.

A show honoring John Denver called Rockie Mountain Memories with Ron Rich nearly sold out the venue in January.

Bissett said he is thinking of trying to attract performers such as Roberta Flack, Mary Wilson from the Supremes and maybe even Badfinger.

"I'm looking at more rock 'n' roll Americana," he said. "Nationally acclaimed acts."

_ Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or

Maureen Dever, left, of Largo and her daughter Meagan Dever of St. Petersburg clap as Collins ends her concert with Amazing Grace. "She passed down her love for folk music to me," Meagan Dever said of her mother.

Judy Collins performs at the Largo Cultural Center on Wednesday. Since the fall of 2003, the venue has tried to court baby boomers. Acts such as Collins sell so many tickets that seats are added. Collins appeared as a result of negotiations that got her to stop on her way to Sarasota to perform at the Van Wezel.

John Toppe, left, and his wife, Melanie, of St. Petersburg, chat with Collins during intermission at Largo Cultural Center. "I think she's having a good time in these small, intimate venues," John Toppe said.