Elevating Charleston's Cultural Life

09 Sep 2015

The curtain rises on the new Gaillard Center, with its first official performance scheduled for mid-October with cellist Yo-Yo Ma


On Aug. 6, a group of invited guests – largely members of the construction team, donors and their families – gathered in the Gaillard Center for the first performance in the new facility. Dubbed a “hard hat concert,” this was a chance to test the acoustics in the performance hall of the $142 million complex. 

The Charleston Symphony Orchestra performed classical pieces so professional acousticians could assess the sound quality, and make adjustments before the downtown Charleston center opens to the public in October. 

Tom Tomlinson, executive director of the Gaillard Center, said the audience was “enthralled with the hall.” And he described the hall’s acoustics as “breathtaking.” 

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. received a standing ovation when he welcomed the crowd – a public expression of thanks for the city’s role in bringing this caliber of performance venue to Charleston, Tomlinson noted.

The Martha & John M. Rivers Performance Hall has a world-class sound system and acoustics, orchestra level seating, plus three tiers of balconies to accommodate 1,800 people. Elegant decor, second-level box seats and Wi-Fi connectivity are just some of the amenities in the hall. Its horseshoe design is reminiscent of classical European concert halls. 

Riley has previously said the goal in rebuilding the Gaillard Center was to “create one of the nation’s finest performance halls and a building that fit more contextually with its surrounding neighborhood.” He has called the center – which also will house municipal offices – an “architectural gem” to the City of Charleston. 

Artistic Background

While a performance center and event space of this caliber might be new for Charleston, it’s old hat for Tomlinson. He’s been opening and managing centers like this around the country for more than 30 years. With a background in lighting design and directing, Tomlinson’s first building project was the Capital Theatre in Yakima, Washington. Others include the Pantages Theatre in Tacoma, Washington, and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in Anchorage. 

Originally from the Northwest, Tomlinson was production manager for the World’s Fair. He worked on a restoration of a performance center in Yakima, Washington, that burned down two weeks before its opening. But Tomlinson turned the tragedy into an opportunity, using federal grants and donations to rebuild the center to its original 1920s grandeur.

Before being selected to manage the Gaillard Center, Tomlinson was overseeing the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center in Bowling Green. He moved to the Holy City in February 2014, having visited the city a couple of times to attend Spoleto Festival USA. 

Charleston is the ninth city Tomlinson has called home. The Gaillard Center is the fifth such building project he’s worked on from construction to grand opening, having been involved in four others during various portions of their design, construction or operation. 

When Tomlinson joined the team, the Gaillard’s construction was well underway, having started in September 2012. Tomlinson was charged with putting organizational pieces in place and filling a team of people to work on programming, marketing, education, ticketing and more. 

Tomlinson said he focused on finding “really smart people. I believe you should hire a whole staff of people who want your job.” 

By the time the Gaillard opens, the staff will have more than 20 people. 

As the construction crews focused on the building, Tomlinson turned his attention to ordering $6 million in furniture, lighting and other interior pieces. “I want to make sure we have the equipment we need to operate as inexpensively as possible.” 

Construction Challenges

About nine months after Tomlinson came on board, it was clear construction was behind schedule. In November 2014, the city announced the center would not be ready for the Spoleto Festival's 2015 season. The delay was largely due to ensuring the acoustics were perfect. 

Tomlinson admits the delay was frustrating at the time, but says in the end it was the right decision. “What you see today could not have happened by April.”

As with just about any sort of construction project, there have been unforeseen issues and challenges. Surrounding neighborhoods haven’t been thrilled with the construction noise. And the city met with some criticism over a project that started as a renovation and turned into a full-blown replacement of the original 1968 center. 

The shape and size of the original stage house remains along with the height of the stage, which was grandfathered in for that neighborhood, Tomlinson said. Portions of the original end of the exhibit hall remain as well. 

It’s possible the community will forget the noise and delays once the center opens, bringing in a Broadway masterpiece and dance series along with educational opportunities and a blend of shows suited for all tastes. 

Diverse Show Lineup

More than 300 shows have already been booked for the Gaillard – more performances than were ever on a seasonal schedule for the previous venue, Tomlinson said. 

The center also houses a 16,000-square-foot exhibit hall/ballroom for tradeshows, conferences and fundraisers. Meetings and conventions have already booked the space into 2020. The center also has a 7,300-square-foot outdoor terrace lawn. The exhibition hall can hold 2,000 for a standing reception and about 1,700 for a seated banquet (combined indoor and outdoor).

A public ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony is from 5-9p.m., Oct. 9. The first official performance is Oct. 18 with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, accompanied by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. Organized by the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation, the concert is an invitation-only event for donors and others interested in the center, followed by a gala. (For ticketing information, contact the foundation at 843-718-1578.)

The 2015-16 season opens to the public on Oct. 22 with San Francisco-based Chanticleer, an award-winning ensemble of 12 men whose voices range from countertenor to bass. Their concert encompasses everything from Renaissance to jazz and gospel to new music. 

The season includes the National Circus and Acrobats of the People’s Republic of China, Munich Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Boys Choir and Broadway favorites like the Broadway Tenors, Beatles tribute “Rain” and “Saturday Night Fever.” The dance series brings in the Charlotte Ballet to perform “Nutcracker” in December and “Little Mermaid” in April along with the world-renowned New York City Ballet performing in March. 

More show announcements are coming, including comedy and folk/country music concerts. 

Education is also a key component of the new Gaillard Center. Six educational programs are scheduled for the season, in which local students will be invited to daytime performances. Plus, the “Nutcracker” and “Little Mermaid” will have daytime shows to accommodate children. 

Students aren’t just attending a show. These performances complement their education with corresponding study guides so teachers can continue a discussion of the arts after the show is over, Tomlinson explained. 

This kind of diversity is central to the mission of the new Gaillard Center. Tomlinson is quick to emphasize the wide variety of programs that will appeal to all ages and tastes. “It’s not just for people in tuxedos and long dresses,” he said. “We’ll have a country and folk show so you can come in your jeans and have a beer.” 

Tomlinson and his team are continuing to pursue more acts, reaching out to booking agents and promoters. They are already starting to think about the 2016-17 season – methodically seeking out a range of programs that will appeal to regular arts patrons while attracting new audiences. 

It all goes back to the original idea of redoing the Gaillard – to elevate Charleston’s cultural life.

“Over time the quality of local arts activities will increase,” Tomlinson said. “When you perform in a hall that is honest, whatever they play, we will hear. That’s the test of a good hall. It’s a vehicle, a tool in which it allows the artists and audience to interact. It’s a great tool to have those conversations. It feels remarkably intimate.” 

To learn more about the Gaillard Center and upcoming performances, visit gaillardcenter.com. To inquire about making a donation, contact the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation at gaillardfoundation.org.

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