Schuster Center celebrates 10 years of inspiration and innovation
Dayton’s Schuster Performing Arts Center does more than just make Dayton home for artfully-minded residents; for many, it is home. The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, led by musical director Neal Gittleman, plays more than 15 separate, unique shows at the Schuster each year. The region’s only professional opera company, the Dayton Opera, occupies the Schuster stage. The second oldest ballet company in the United States, the Dayton Ballet, not only performs for sold-out audiences, but also leads a ballet school for children and young adults inspired by the delicate dance. And the Victoria Theatre Association, one of Dayton’s premier not-for-profit organizations, produces more than 300 shows annually for adults and children of all ages. Additionally, the Schuster Center houses Citilites, a casual dining restaurant and bar, open to the public. For the past 10 years, the Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center has drawn nationally touring acts and shows like “Shrek: the Musical” and “Wicked,” while putting on a host of locally produced spectacles. Fittingly located in the heart of Dayton, the Schuster Center is just that – the heart of the city.
This year, March 1 marks the 10th anniversary of the construction of the center and there will be celebrations from March 1, 2013 through Feb. 28, 2014. Celebratory performances include a Gala Concert on March 1 featuring five-time Tony Award-winning singer and actress Audra McDonald (The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess”), a Community Open House on March 2 mirroring the original walk-through given in 2003 when the building opened, giving guests exclusive backstage tours, kids activities, cooking demonstrations at Citilites and So You Think You Can Play the Schuster, a local talent contest running August through September 13. There are many more events and activities, all found at schustercenter.org/schuster-anniversary/celebrate, so be sure to find something that tickles your fancy and celebrate the arts with the rest of the city.
This year, however, is not just a time to revel in the present. Ten years is a relative blip on the monitor for a town as historic as Dayton, and while the location of the current Schuster Center wasn’t always flocked to for performing arts, it has always been central and important to the city of Dayton.
Since 1912, the corner at Second and Main Streets has held a prominent spot in the community’s goings-on. In 1912, Frederick Rike opened Rike’s department store on that very corner. While today Dayton does not have many options along the lines of mass-appeal retail downtown, throughout the 20th century, Rike’s was the Boardwalk spot in Dayton Monopoly.
“It was a great department store,” said longtime Dayton resident Frank Pauer. “It was your old, traditional sort of thing, but it was a great store.”
“There used to be a lot of nice clothing stores downtown,” interjected resident Jenneane Parsons.
“It was like when you go to Macy’s in Chicago,” continued Pauer. “It was that kind of store. It was beautiful.”
In 1959, Rike’s became part of Federated Department Stores, whom in 1982 merged Rike’s with Cincinnati-based Shilito’s, forming Shilito Rike’s. Then, in 1986, Shilito Rike’s merged with the Columbus-based Lazarus chain. Lazarus remained in the Second and Main location until 1992, when it finally shut down for good after suburban shopping malls attracted former downtown customers.
And so was planted the seed for a performing arts center.
Around that time, the Dayton Business Committee and the Downtown Dayton Partnership decided the City of Dayton’s business and entertainment environments needed improvement and repurposing the old Lazarus/Rike’s building site would be a major step towards doing so.
In 1995, Tom Danis, David Holmes, Steve Mason and Ron Budzik formed the team charged with raising early capital funds to purchase the building and adjacent parking garage. Early responders Mead Corp., Reynolds & Reynolds and Danis Corp. kicked off the initiative that eventually attracted 22 local businesses and community leaders forming Second and Main Ltd., intent on rebuilding the reputation of its namesake location, shopping malls be damned; An urban renaissance in response to suburban sprawl.
Multiple studies done by local committees and contracted business developers initially looked at downtown’s Memorial Hall and concluded that the cost to renovate the old structure would far surpass the cost of building an entirely new center. The same developers also recommended the Lazarus/Rike’s property be considered prime location for a new arts center given its proximity to Memorial Hall and both the Victoria Theatre – which sits directly across Main Street – and the Metropolitan Arts Center. The building project was bid to the Messer-Danis firm of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Lazarus was imploded in November 1999. Official groundbreaking took place in April 2000.
Enter Dr. Benjamin Schuster, his wife, Marian, and $8 million.
“We’ve always been interested in the arts; our children went to the National Music Camp at Interlocken (Mich.) for many years and all played instruments,” said Dr. Schuster in an interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer. “Marian has a background in music. Marian and I just felt it was the right thing to do. I use the term carpe diem, because we just seized the moment.”
That moment, seized by that couple and their donation to Dayton’s brand new performing arts center landed them the honor of having their name on the front door. The Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center was a dream coming true for Dayton.
“Music, art, dance – we’re surrounded by that in Cincinnati, Columbus and Indianapolis,” said Mrs. Schuster in the same interview. “But Dayton has to do what’s right for Dayton. You can’t be coveting everybody else’s work; you have to do what you think is right and hopefully it stimulates a few people.”
Today, the Schuster Center serves as much more than an arts center. It’s stimulated far more than an arts community with its restaurants, 15-story office tower, condominiums, Wintergarden and penthouse. Palm trees loom over the Kettering Wintergarden from inside the towering windowed face of the building. The state-of-the-art, 2,300-seat theater has fiber optic lights in the dome ceiling twinkling a depiction of the Dayton sky as it appeared the eve of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903.
With the help of the Schuster Center, performing arts in Dayton have assumed center stage. While the center is not the only place in the city to catch a show, it has undoubtedly drawn attention to the thriving creative scene the Miami Valley has to offer. From festivals to art galleries, studios and performing arts organizations, the Schuster Center is the City on a Hill for aspiring artistic endeavors. In 10 years, the center literally grew from the ashes of implosion of an old shopping mall. It replaced retail with performance and spectacle.
The massive building is a landmark facility for Dayton’s arts and cultural life, and a legacy for generations to come. Having helped pull Dayton out of an impending decline in foot traffic and nightlife at the turn of the century, many local businesses – particularly restaurants – depend on the crowd the center brings downtown. As the Schuster Center started adding more performances in the early millennium, restaurants started opening – and staying open. Now, the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center is not Dayton’s arts district, it is only the center of it, and the Victoria Arts Association along with many other local associations and partnerships hope to see the district continue to thrive and grow. Who knows what the next 10 years will see?
If you’re as excited about the anniversary of the Schuster Center as the Victoria Theatre Association is, they’re giving you plenty of opportunities to share their enthusiasm. The year they have lined up of events and celebratory fetes will highlight everything about the center, from the acoustics Tony Bennett hailed “one of the best in the world” to the multipurpose spaces available for renting and hosting get-togethers of your own.
Kicking off the celebration March 1 is Audra McDonald. Accompanied by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, the five-time Tony award winner will shed her image as “Private Practice” star and show off the voice that earned her two Grammy awards. Tickets are on sale now for the event.
Art in the Wintergarden
Willis “Bing” Davis, one of Dayton’s most illustrious artists and educators, will have an enormous art installation in the Wintergarden that can be seen from all three levels overlooking the space that accommodates up to 1,000 people at a time. “Schuster Spirit Dance” will be unveiled at the Gala Concert. Known for using his art as a form of social commentary, Davis’ pieces are particularly personal.
“In terms of subject matter, I address myself to the unlimited resource of possibilities of my existence,” Davis said. The conscious inclusion of social commentary in my works is the first step toward speaking to a universal condition. The rich artistic heritage of African art with its religious, social and magical substance is what I select as an aesthetic and historical link.”
Community Open House
The Schuster Center first hosted a community open house in March 2003 as the front doors first opened to the public. Nn March 2, 10 years later almost to the date, The Schuster Center will again open their doors to the public, offering backstage tours of the Mead and Mathile Theatres, kids’ activities, cooking demonstrations in Citilities and live performances throughout the building and its venues.
The free open house aims to instill the same affection in the public that performers have for the space. The acts that have come through and performed at the Schuster Center “absolutely love it,” said Patrick Keough, production and technical manager for the Victoria Theatre Association.
So You Think You Can Play the Schuster Center?
Much like the show off of which the event plays its name, this talent competition invites Daytonians to take the stage and audition for a chance to perform on the Mead Theatre stage Sept. 13. Auditions will begin in August and, for those who qualify, semi-finals and final rounds will be held Sept. 13 (that’s a Friday for all you superstitious ones, remember to clip on your lucky rabbit foot). The audition is free and tickets to the final event are $10.
Does it sound intimidating? In reality, it’s not. This ongoing event offers live performances of “The Mayhem Poets” to 10,000 Dayton-area students. The Mayhem Poets, a New Jersey-based slam poetry group, are on a mission to change the reaction most young people have to the phrase, “Lets go see a poetry show!”
The New York Times says they are “an amazing ride.” Classically trained in theater, the troupe uses their comedic gifts, wit and rhyming rhetoric to blend hip-hop, theater, improvised and stand-up comedy to instill their passion for world issues and eye-opening truths. May 13-15, 10,000 10-year-olds – if the mission of the event is succeeded – will use the performances to improve reading, writing and the arts in their classrooms.
The theater is not for rich people. While sometimes costs of performances – particularly well-known, nationally touring acts – can be prohibitive, the Victoria Theatre Association hopes to make them a little more accessible. Many shows held in the Mead Theater ranging from concerts to performances and events presented by resident companies will have tickets for $10 – 10,000 of them, in fact.
Sponsored by The Dayton Power & Light Company, Cheap Seats can be purchased through a special link on ticketcenterstage.com. To receive notifications about ticket availability, register at schuster.org/cheap.seats.
Reach DCP freelance writer Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@daytoncitypaper.com