Mount Vernon music venues attract top artists, businesses
On a Wednesday a few months ago, Bill Higgs’ cell phone rang with one text message after another, all asking pretty much the same question.
Did you hear the concert announcement?
Can you believe who comes to Mount Vernon?
How did it happen?
Higgs’ first reaction was disbelief.
You see, Higgs is a huge KISS fan and finding out that Ace Frehley, the famous band’s lead guitarist, would be playing just minutes from his Mount Vernon home seemed too good to be true.
“Everyone knows I’m a big Ace fan – seven different people texted me to let me know Ace was coming to town,” Higgs, 54, said.Of course he is.‘ But then my phone kept turning on.
Surely Frehley wouldn’t play the 500-seat Woodward Opera House when he had recently sold out venues 20 times the size.
Fast forward to March 11, and Higgs found himself in the lobby of the newly refurbished Woodward on South Main Street, wearing a blue singlet with Ace Frehley’s face on it, waiting for the legendary guitarist’s concert to begin.
He and the seven other Mount Vernon residents he came with that night were excited.
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Everyone in the room too. Truly, the buzz spread throughout the town of 16,000.
“What a great way to kick off this new music,” Higgs said. “They didn’t have a mime. They shot really big with Ace.
The musical “thing” Higgs is referring to is the Mount Vernon Arts Consortium – an effort to elevate the arts in Mount Vernon and to strategically use its magnificent performance venues.
Frehley is just the start, promises consortium executive director Martin Booker.
Indeed, organizers have already booked Amy Grant (April 7) and Clint Black (September 15) at the Knox Memorial Theater while comedian Kevin Nealon, of “Saturday Night Live” and “Weeds” fame, will perform at the Woodward. June 16. .
“Where we are with this lineup in 10 months, I thought it would be two years,” Booker said.
Even though he booked the show himself, Booker still finds it hard to believe the KISS guitarist came to town.
“I’m a rock ‘n’ roll fanatic,” the 52-year-old said. “I can’t understand Ace Frehley at Woodward.”
A heart for the arts at Mount Vernon
When Karen Buchwald Wright established the Ariel Foundation in 2009, she wanted to improve the quality of life in Mount Vernon, her hometown and the headquarters of the family business, Ariel Corporation.
That included the arts scene, said Jen Odenweller, the foundation’s executive director.
The foundation’s efforts began with infrastructure by creating the Ariel Foundation Park and its Schnormeier Event Center. He also helped renovate the 1,000-seat Knox Memorial in 2017, a nearly 100-year-old site that was built to honor World War I veterans.
Add to that the Woodward Opera House, which was undergoing its own restoration, and suddenly there were these artistic assets, which, although managed separately, needed guidance to thrive, Odenweller continued.
In the summer of 2020, with the pandemic giving everyone time to assess priorities, Odenweller said the foundation’s board, along with organizations across the region, began talking about creating an entity to help these venues book larger acts, create marketing plans, and coordinate schedules.
“It has become an economic development strategy,” she continued. “We’re rich in the arts, rich in culture and if we showcased it, we could share Central Ohio’s best kept secret.”
If people are coming to town for a big-name show, they might be dining at a downtown restaurant or staying at a nearby hotel. Then maybe they would come back after hearing about the trails and waterways in the area.
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“Knox County is a beautiful rural area in the middle of the state,” Odenweller said. “The development was the impetus of the arts consortium.”
The extensive efforts, using tax credits and private donations, that have brought the Woodward back to life have only added to the need for such a group, said Dena Hess-McKinstry, its director.
Built in 1851, the opera house is considered the oldest and authentic 19th century theater in the country.
The building became dilapidated – holes in the floor, broken windows, boards everywhere – but from the 1990s renovations began, first installing restaurants and shops on the first floor, then transforming the theater using parts salvaged from the era in which it was originally built.
Closed since 2001, the opera house finally reopened in 2019, only for COVID-19 to cancel most plans for 2020.
Hess-McKinstry said she was delighted to partner with the consortium, as it gives her and her team the time to deal with the day-to-day tasks of running a performance venue that also has retail tenants.
“We can let them focus on the acts they bring, on the marketing,” she said. “They can spread the word in the widest possible way and make Mount Vernon a destination – not a passageway.”
Knox County commissioners awarded the consortium $300,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to get it off the ground.
Teresa Bemiller, chair of the Knox County Commissioners, said the Knox Memorial building has long been underutilized and the Consortium, along with a few other tweaks, seems like a great way to change that.
“The sites work on their own,” Bemiller said. “When you look at the arts consortium, they will now complement each other. They are all unique and get the acts that suit them.
“With the rescue money, we believe the arts are important and add vitality to the community.”
Bemiller, however, was shocked at how quickly this impressive lineup came together.
For that, Booker and her team have to thank, she said.
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From Tinseltown to his hometown
After spending three decades in Los Angeles working as a writer and executive producer on shows such as “The Biggest Loser” and “The Office,” Booker moved to Mount Vernon about three years ago to help out his aging mother.
But also, he said, he was looking for a change of pace from the competitive Hollywood lifestyle.
At first the transition was difficult, but then he saw a job offer to lead the artistic consortium.
“I thought, ‘Is this really real?'” Booker said.
Not only would the position allow him to use his talents and connections in the entertainment industry, but it would also give him the opportunity to give back to his hometown.
“Now when I win, the community wins,” Booker said. “In LA, at the end of every meeting, it was, ‘How can I win?’ Here is the best for Mount Vernon.
Booker said he found a “powerful” promoter who believed in what the consortium was trying to do and allowed them to book Frehley. The other acts followed.
He hopes some of that good fortune will set a record in the future.
And he wants the success of the consortium to spread throughout the city.
“If we pack the Woodward and the Memorial, but have no impact on Mount Vernon and the businesses, we’ve failed,” Booker said. “This beautiful programming has happened for us and now how do we make sure everyone benefits from the arrival of the arts?”
Art creates business in Mount Vernon breweries, restaurants
Certainly, the anticipatory construction of the line outside the theater doors before Frehley’s show seemed to indicate that the plan was working.
Several attendees had been to the packed Stein Brewing Company, which is on the ground floor of the concert hall, while the Flappers Bar and Grille around the corner felt it had doubled the activity that a typical Friday night.
Jennifer and Jerry Roberts drove an hour from Marion, stopping at Amato’s Woodfired Pizza in Mount Vernon and then at a cafe down the street.
Decked out in band t-shirts – her in a vintage 80s and he in one from Amazon – the couple said they saw KISS at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus a few years ago, but were looking forward to seeing Frehley in a venue much smaller.
“It’s going to be a lot more intimate,” Jerry Roberts said. “Nationwide is so big. And the acoustics should be nice since it’s in an old opera house.
Booker hopes that’s part of the appeal: that people can see their favorite acts up close and personal for the same price as seeing them in a huge arena. (Tickets for the Amy Grant show cost between $68 and $97, for example.)
Indeed, Mike Shaffer of Mansfield was shocked to learn that Frehley was playing at Mount Vernon.
“I thought, ‘Mount Vernon, this is weird,'” he said. “Because it’s such a small town. It’s a bit weird.
But it gave him the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time with his 14-year-old son, Noah, as they are both Frehley fans.
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While some might call it “bizarre” now to hear about these national acts playing in little old Mount Vernon, Booker hopes to make it more commonplace.
“Whether it’s Amy Grant or Ace, artists let visitors in…to experience this moment together, this togetherness for one night,” Booker said.
“We use art as a way to create business. These places are really cool, but there are 10 other equally cool things here. That’s really all.
In one look
Amy Grant will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Knox Memorial Theatre, 112 E. High St., Mount Vernon; Kevin Nealon will perform a comedy set at 8 p.m. June 16 at Woodward Opera House, 107 S. Main St., Mount Vernon; and Clint Black will appear at 8 p.m. on September 15 at the Knox Memorial. All tickets can be purchased at www.mvac.org.