Impressions of an Impresario — John WilkesIn the theater business, John Wilkes is known as something of a turn-around artist, taking underperforming halls and turning them into high performers. Before coming to the Sunrise last summer under a temporary contract, Wilkes managed the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota and the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
Wilkes, who did consulting work for the city before the Sunrise’s reopening in January 2006, was brought in last summer to replace David Jenkins, who abruptly resigned after a rocky first season running the 1,200-seat Sunrise. Built in 1923 in the waning days of Vaudeville, the Sunrise is one of the oldest theaters on Florida’s east coast. It closed in 1983 and reopened 23 years later after a renovation that included about $11 million in public money.
Arriving on the job, Wilkes faced the task of addressing a $1.3 million deficit and improving goodwill for the theater. In a few short months, he booked a season of shows, bringing in headliners such as Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and the Smothers Brothers, expanded the theater’s volunteer staff to more than 140 people and, at no cost to the theater or city, produced in conjunction with Indian River Magazine Inc. the theater’s first playbill. He also hired a new staff, luring away from Sarasota several key managers for the Sunrise.
Working to allay criticisms of the theater by some members of the city’s African-American community because of the theater’s early history of segregation, he brought in national shows such as “Whatever She Wants” starring Vivica Fox, African Footprint, Peru Negro, D. L. Hughley, Four Tops, “Comedy Explosion,” featuring comedians from the BET network, and recently hosted a concert for the nationally acclaimed Avenue D Boys Choir. As of mid-March, more than 50,000 people had attended shows at the Sunrise this season.
Q. What’s been the greatest change at the Sunrise since your arrival?
A. I really believe the greatest change has been a wider community acceptance and support of what we’re doing here. In terms of the business operation, some of the needed changes were obvious, everything from programming to creating a public relations strategy to marketing, to customer service.
Q. How is the Sunrise different from other theaters you’ve managed?
A. The Sunrise is different in terms of the building itself. It’s a historic theater, which I’ve never professionally operated. But the same business principles still apply, even with its limitations, whether it’s a 1923 theater or one built in 2008. In terms of market, it’s unique.
Q. Is part of your strategy making the Sunrise a regional theater instead of a purely local theater?
A. It has to be. We’re seeing so many more people coming into Fort Pierce and the Sunrise for first time because of the attractions we’re offering. I think that the community wants the theater to be successful. In order for that to happen, we have to offer things that are attractive to the region, because the region and not necessarily Fort Pierce proper alone, is what will drive the success of the Sunrise Theatre. We are seeing people on regular basis coming for shows from West Palm and Vero, Port St. Lucie, Stuart, Jupiter, Sebastian, Fort Lauderdale and even Miami. It’s rewarding to see the reach getting greater.
Q. You’ve been greeting audiences before the curtain opens and have been asking how many have been to the city or the Sunrise for the first time. What has been the response?
A. What’s pleasing to hear is that those coming to the Sunrise for the first time are just wowed by the theater. Many of the first-time visitors are impressed with everything from how well the renovation was done to performances they’ve seen. There are generally two categories of visitors. There are the ones who’ve never been here before and come to a show and are impressed by the theater and downtown. They’ve seen the waterfront, eaten at a great restaurant and say they’ll come back to experience Fort Pierce and the Sunrise. Then there are people who had preconceived reasons of Fort Pierce not being the wonderful place to visit for reasons that aren’t here today. They’re extremely pleased with the development they’re seeing in the downtown area, the exciting restaurants, the waterfront and the shows. It’s an enlightening experience for first-time visitors to Fort Pierce and for people who have not visited Fort Pierce for many years.
Q. How is the theater doing financially compared to last year?
A. Last month, we had combined ticket sales that were over $100,000 more than the entire year last year. That being said, it’s all relative in terms of income and expense. We’re making every attempt to meet this year’s budget, which is $550,000 less than last year’s financial sponsorship requirement of the city.
Q. You know a lot of the artists you’ve brought in. What has been their reaction?
A. Consistently, all the artists have said how much they like the Sunrise Theatre and how well they were treated here. And that’s significant, both in terms of getting artists to return and artists talking to other artists about how well they were received.
Q. How do you like living in Fort Pierce?
A. I love it. I was smitten in 2000 when I was consulting with the architect on the renovation and preparing a five-year business plan. While I’ve had offers to go elsewhere in the past eight months, for a number of reasons I’ve really reconnected and attached myself to the community and the theater. I love a professional challenge, and the Sunrise has become so close to my heart. I want to see it succeed and that’s why I’m staying. Number two, the people are friendly here and many are so dedicated to the Sunrise. Also, there are many who see a vision of how this community can move forward in a very positive way, and I want to be one of those who contribute to that goal. Fort Pierce is on the upswing, and it’s no longer the sometimes forgotten space between Indian River and Martin counties. People are seeing the potential of not only the Sunrise Theatre but Fort Pierce in the years to come.
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