Ted Farha has loved the Orpheum Theatre since he was a kid. He's never been more excited about what's happening at the historic downtown venue than he is now.
"There have been a lot of great shows there over the years, but man, they're coming at a pace they never have," said Farha, a Wichita building contractor and self-described huge music fan. "The frequency has gone from three a year to probably a dozen a year I couldn't miss."
That's exactly the kind of response the Orpheum's staff hoped would follow its new approach to programming concerts and other events. The biggest change, says operations and promotions manager Adam Hartke, is that the Orpheum is presenting more shows itself rather than renting the space to outside promoters.
That allows the staff to be more selective about which acts appear there.
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"We're really trying to find performances that are top-tiered as far as actual musicianship or theatrical (quality), bringing in things that are really at the forefront," Hartke said. "And we're trying to do it so that we're bringing in a very diverse range of shows."
As examples, Hartke points to recent shows by country music icon Merle Haggard and banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, as well as upcoming appearances by comedian Lewis Black (Sept. 22), singers Rosanne Cash (Sept. 23) and Gillian Welch (Oct. 12), trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (Sept. 28) and the Moscow Ballet (Dec. 8).
Hartke has the full backing of Orpheum president Jennifer Wright. Both are relatively new on their jobs. Hartke came to the Orpheum last December. A Wichita native, he had been promoting CDs and shows through his own company, Hartke Records, for several years. Hartke said his fiance is handling most of that company's business now.
Wright came to the Orpheum as interim president in January, after the retirement of longtime president Mary Eves, and had the interim label removed in May.
Wright said Hartke, thanks to his background, "has a really good sense of what kind of music would be good for this community."
That applies in particular to shows that appeal to younger audiences, which she said hasn't been a focus in the past. A block party featuring the alt-rock band 311 that was in and around the Orpheum last month drew 2,270 people — more than twice as many as fit into the theater itself.
Hartke is also trying to build a series of shows around themes like Americana music and dance, as well as giving more local music a shot at playing the 90-year-old theater.
On Saturday night, the Orpheum was scheduled to host a concert featuring Kansas musicians — Truckstop Honeymoon of Lawrence, plus Uche and Scott Allen Knost and Jenny Wood of Wichita — who are being featured in this year's season of "Wichita Sessions" on KPTS.
The risk involved that comes with presenting shows is that enough people won't buy tickets to offset the cost of staging them — everything from advertising to paying the performers and sound crews.
"But we believe if we pick the right performers for this city, we will be successful," Wright said. "And we'll also increase the interest and tickets by doing so. So far this year, we've been very successful. We haven't taken any losses."
And that, in turn, could help the Orpheum with the multi-million dollar capital fundraising campaign it recently announced, which is designed to restore the theater to its original grandeur.
"I think they go hand-in-hand," said Rodney Miller, dean of Wichita State University's College of Fine Arts and a member of the Orpheum's board of directors. "Better programming and getting more people in the doors means raising more funds for the renovations. And once we do the renovations, that will simply be a catalyst for getting more people to see what we're doing on stage."
For Hartke, there's a bit of hometown pride involved as well. For years, he's heard how the Orpheum doesn't attract the same high quality of performances that the Stiefel Theatre in Salina does. The Stiefel is smaller than the Orpheum but fully restored.
"In the past, I think that was a very valid question," Hartke said. "I feel like the Stiefel was doing wonderful, bringing in Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Jackson Browne — all those huge names. A lot of Wichitans have wondered why they don't come here. If you compare this year's schedule, I think we have a few shows up on them, and they have a couple shows up on us."
"That place is cranked up," he said of the Orpheum. "We don't have to drive anywhere to see shows anymore."
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ON THE BILL AT THE ORPHEUM
Highlights of the Orpheum's upcoming schedule include the following. Tickets are available at selectaseat.com or by calling 316-755-7328.
* The Temptations: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 2, tickets $33 to $45
* Lewis Black: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22, tickets $45 to $60
* Rosanne Cash: 8 p.m. Sept. 23, tickets $30 to $40
* The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: 7 p.m. Sept. 28, tickets $25 to $95
* Gillian Welch: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12, all tickets $28.50
* Cirque Mechanics-Boomtown: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19, tickets $27.50 to $37.50
* Moscow Ballet presents the Great Russian Nutcracker: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8, tickets $27.50 to $102