The stage was lit, the curtain drawn, and the angelic voices of the Vienna Boys Choir projected through the theatre, bringing to fruition the long-awaited vision of the H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center. Years of inspiration, planning, construction, and revision led to that moment. A moment when, on December 5, 2005, staff, supporters, volunteers, performers, and patrons finally realized the gem that had been created.
That first performance was eye opening to Leslie Folmer Clinton, director of the Luhrs Center and associate vice president for external affairs. While hiring staff, recruiting volunteers, equipping and furnishing spaces, scheduling performers, advertising shows, guiding tours, and juggling a host of other responsibilities for their highly anticipated opening, she didn’t have the opportunity to appreciate just how “right” they got it.
“I remember that morning, even as we were dedicating the building, the painters were still running around here painting. But from a public standpoint, it looked really good,” Clinton said.
“The Vienna Boys Choir came in and, normally for a venue our size, they would’ve miked the boys. When they heard the acoustics in the theatre, they said, ‘We’re not going to mike them.’ That’s when we realized how good our acoustics were.”
Over 300 shows and fifty sellouts later, the Luhrs Center has solidified its place as a key entertainment venue in the region. Now preparing for its tenth season, Clinton took time to speak with SU Magazine about “entertaining, enlightening, and educating” audiences for nearly ten years.
How early were you involved in the planning of the Luhrs Center?
I came back to Shippensburg in July 2002 as the building was still in the design stage. We formed an advisory council of alumni and friends of SU to provide advice on programming, fund raising, audience development, and publicity. Dr. Tom Colley, retired theatre faculty member, chaired the advisory council.
We broke ground in October of 2003. We dedicated the building on December 1, 2005.
What was the vision of the center?
I’ll never forget President Ceddia coming into a meeting with a large rendering of a performing arts center and sharing it with trustees and (Shippensburg University) Foundation board members of his concept of having a performing arts center on this campus. It took many years after that for the right opportunity for funding of the building.
Fortunately, one of the people who shared President Ceddia’s vision for a regional performing arts center was Mr. (H. Ric) Luhrs. Mr. Luhrs saw a performing arts center as a way to bridge the community and the university.
Why was this an important project for the university to pursue?
Dr. Ceddia thought it was important that our students and the community get exposed to all different types of the performing arts. I think he probably saw the performing arts center as being regional as a way for the university to take leadership in offering the university and community at large the arts in our backyard.
What need did the center fill for the university and the community?
I would say the Luhrs Center not only met expectations, but far exceeded people’s expectations.
There are a lot of people in this area who won’t drive an hour to Hershey, or they wouldn’t drive two hours to Philadelphia or Baltimore. Our patrons are getting an opportunity to see these shows that they wouldn’t otherwise make a special effort to travel and see.
And there’s something different about our facility. It’s that next level of performance at that 1,500 seats.
Beyond our own community, the Luhrs Center also attracts ticket buyers from father than seventy-five miles away—patrons have come as far away as California and Florida and across the country. Certain acts and artists have a tremendous following, which is good for our hotels, restaurants, and local economy.
What challenges arise when operating such a large venue on a university campus?
When we were first starting out, the agents representing the artists didn’t know where Shippensburg was.
For a new agent, I give them our website. That gives them an opportunity to go in and see what kind of acts we’re booking, then can go in and look at our tech specs, they can take a virtual tour of our facility if they want to, and usually they call me back really quickly. They see the kinds of shows we’re bringing in, they can see the numbers we’ve done on certain shows. I have no problem booking shows with agents anymore.
Prior to the Luhrs Center, there was a mindset, a culture if you will, that everything was free, and there was a time when things could be free. Now we have this magnificent facility; if we wanted to bring the kind of shows in that people can’t get unless they go to a larger city, we were going to have to charge.
Fortunately, if you look at the ticket prices, service fees, and related costs such as parking at other venues, these same shows at the bigger cities, ticket buyers would pay a lot more than they do here.
We still know we have a lot of people who haven’t been here, but we do know if we get them here once, they’ll come back.
how do you prepare for a show?
We say the easiest show we have to do is a comedy show. We put out a microphone, a stool, and a bottle of water. Load out is putting the stool and the microphone away and walking out the back door. The tech guys love that.
The Broadway shows are the most labor intensive jobs on show day. It’s the same setup for the front of the house, but for the tech crew it’s a very labor intensive day.
The crew came in at 7 that morning (for Beauty and the Beast). They had the show loaded in. Bob has a great crew. It was a 7:30 show. I think it took the crew until close to 2 the next morning to complete the load out and Bob was walking out the door.
what shows are best received in this area?
Ten years later, we have a much better idea of what resonates with our audience. We know we have an audience for country and comedy, but we can’t have all country and comedy shows.
We say our niche is that we have something for everybody.
HOW DO YOU PLAN YOUR SEASON?
I liken building a season to putting a jigsaw puzzle together, which, I don’t like doing jigsaw puzzles by the way, but that’s what it feels like.
I have a paper calendar that I use and a pencil. I plot all the university events I know that are happening, when the university academic year starts, when fall and spring breaks are, home or away football games, and other major university events.
Agents will start emailing me in September of shows that might be available for the next season.
The biggest booking conference I attend is held in January in New York City at the Hilton where all of the agents are in three exhibit halls. They promote the performers, acts, and entertainers they’ll have available in the next season.
What questions do patrons ask the most?
“Can you book so-and-so artist?”
We always look into suggestions from our patrons, but there are so many factors that go into booking an artist. For example, they might not be touring, their tour route might bypass us, it might not be appropriate for our size venue, or it might not sell well with our demographic.
But we do consider every suggestion and frequently poll our audience.
What have performers said about the venue?
The artists very often make comments during the show to our patrons about how nice the facility is, how well they’re treated. They’ll thank the staff during the show.
Our patrons really like that they know that the artists enjoy being here and that the staff is treating them well. You can tell when an artist is performing that they’re having a good day and they felt they’ve been treated well; they give a much better show to the audience.
how else is the Center used?
Sprinkled in between shows, there could be another seventy events happening in the center.
We hold weddings receptions here in the upstairs (Orrstown Bank) lobby. We’re involved in student orientation for two weeks this summer. We participate in the open houses when the facility is available.
We rent out the Luhrs Center for the Shippensburg School District’s jazz program and high school graduation.
We host the SU band concert here in the spring and the SU university community orchestra concert in the fall and spring.
We’re doing our part to also promote the university, like Open Houses, that helps promote Ship to prospective students.
Ten years later, for what is the Luhrs Center best known?
The experience that our patrons receive—from the time they drive onto campus, get their car parked, are greeted as they walk in the door, are ushered to their seats and, see a great show. And then when they walk out of the building and drivel safely on their way back home—that’s the experience that I hope we’re selling for their ticket price, beyond just what the performance is that night.