By ALAN J. ORTBALS
What is going on at the Wildey Theater in Downtown Edwardsville?
Last December, a screening of the 2003 Christmas movie, “Elf,” sold out. A second showing was quickly arranged for the next day and it drew 225 people.
In January, the Grateful Dead cover band, Jake’s Leg, played to a sold-out audience.
As of this writing, only a few tickets remain for Zydeco Crawdaddys, Judy Collins and Dueling Pianos.
It was just a few years ago that many acts drew embarrassingly small audiences and some movies were shown with no one in the theater at all.
That all changed two years ago when Al Canal took over as general manager and talent buyer at the Wildey. Canal has an extensive history in the entertainment business. He started as a standup comic about 35 years ago touring the country, then moved over to the management side of the business running comedy clubs. Prior to coming to the Wildey, he was working for a company that owned comedy clubs around the country. His job was essentially a comedy club doctor. He would work with new clubs to help them get off on the right foot and tackle unsuccessful clubs, figure out what was wrong and turn them around.
What was wrong with the Wildey?
“The previous city administration operated under the theory that they should have something booked almost every day,” Canal said. “That’s a mistake. You don’t book something just to have something. It kills attendance. My first year here we had 22 percent fewer major events but overall attendance was up 25 percent.
“When you book something you need to ask two questions,” Canal said, “why should I book this? and 2) how am I going to market it? If you don’t know the answer to the second question, don’t book it. It doesn’t matter what you have. If you don’t market it correctly, it’s not going to work. At a place like the Wildey, you have to do two types of marketing. You have to market the venue and you have to market the acts.”
Canal said that marketing used to be much simpler. Radio, television and newspapers did the trick. Now there are so many more avenues and the audiences are so different, you have to tailor the marketing plan to the audience. The Wildey uses its website, Canal said, and has an email list of about 12,000, but he also uses social media like Facebook and Twitter.
“We track results so we know what works and what doesn’t,” Canal said. “You have to think about the type of people who would come to a particular show. What are their lifestyles and how to reach out to them? If we have something that appeals to an older demographic, newspapers are great. If it’s a show for young people, you have to go with social media.”
To understand what acts will draw an audience and what type of audience they’ll draw, Canal looks at the performer’s history at other venues similar to the Wildey.
“But sometimes you don’t get it right,” Canal said. “I had an act recently that didn’t do very well. It broke even. But the audience turned out to be a very different makeup than what I thought it would be. Now I know. I’d be willing to try the act again because now I know I was reaching out to the wrong audience.”
He also asks people for suggestions. Some of the best things he’s booked are things someone suggested, he said. He credits the current city administration for giving him the support and the freedom needed to be successful. He also gives credit to his staff who, along with him, prides themselves on customer service.
Canal said that the Wildey is now getting a reputation among performers as a great venue to play. In fact, he says, he’s able to book acts that typically play larger rooms because it’s known as a beautiful place with really great sound and audio and a reputation for treating the acts well.
“They could play bigger venues,” Canal said, “but here they can really connect with the audience. And performers like to connect with their audience. There’s a lot of gratification for them.”
Canal said that last year he received a call from the agent for the actor Billy Bob Thornton who has a band called the Boxmasters. His agent said that Thornton had heard about the Wildey and wanted to play it. Canal said the fee that was quoted was out of his reach; the Wildey only had 325 seats and just couldn’t afford Thornton’s usual amount. Because Thornton really wanted to play the Wildey, the agent dropped the price and Thornton and the Boxmasters performed there on April 22 of last year.
Another event that has been drawing sellout crowds are movie events put on by The Friends of Wildey. In addition to seeing a classic movie, the audience is entertained beforehand with trivia from the movie and given some background for the making of the movie. One of the actors from the film attends, talks about the filming and does a Q&A with the audience. S.J. Morrison, a member of the board of Friends of Wildey has taken the lead on organizing the film events.
“The first one we did was, ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon,’ which is a cult classic,” Morrison said. “I did some research on it and discovered that the female lead from the movie, Julie Adams, was still living and did public appearances. I reached out to her via Facebook. She was 86 years old and she actually celebrated her 87th birthday at the Wildey with us. She came out, talked about making the movie, did some Q&A and signed autographs. It was a huge hit. We sold out multiple performances.
“And, I can’t tell you how cool it was to be watching the original, 1931, ‘Dracula’ movie with Bella Lugosi Jr.,” Morrison added. “That was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. And then to be on stage with him asking him questions and him talking about his dad; talking about being on the set of “Abbott and Costello Meet Dracula.” The characters in these movies are iconic and what we’re doing is finding people who were part of these movies who can shed light on them. It makes it a much more intimate experience for me and for the moviegoer.”
The Friends of Wildey have also brought in Mary Badham who played Scout in the 1962 film, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Karolyn Grimes who played Zuzu in 1946’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Morrison said that he had also pursued Tippi Hedren for a screening of “The Birds” and Robert England from “Nightmare on Elm Street” but wasn’t able to work it out.
The next movie performance is not currently booked but Morrison said he’s hoping to do one with “Back to the Future” in the fall and “The Christmas Story” in December.
“The idea is not to just show a movie but to create an event and to draw people into it,” Morrison said. “You could watch these movies on Netflix but here you’re not only seeing it as it was meant to be seen—on the big screen — but with someone who was actually a part of its creation describing the experience. The hope is that it will help tie people to the movie and to the Wildey. It’s been a fun experience and we’ll keep doing it.”