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True North to save the show?

Struggling Burt and Pantages could benefit from expertise

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True North Sports & Entertainment is exploring partnership with two historic downtown theatres, including the Burton Cummings theatre.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

True North Sports & Entertainment is exploring partnership with two historic downtown theatres, including the Burton Cummings theatre. Photo Store

True North Sports & Entertainment may lend a much-needed hand to a pair of struggling downtown concert venues.

Kevin Donnelly, senior vice-president of venues and entertainment at True North, said he is exploring partnership opportunities with the Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts and the Pantages Playhouse Theatre.

The company doesn't want to buy either heritage building but Donnelly thinks it can help increase traffic at them and help forge a strategic plan for the future.

"We have been approached and we have interest in seeing what might exist in one or both of those theatres as an opportunity for True North. Our primary focus was and is the Burt," Donnelly said.

"It needs to have a multi-faceted plan brought forward. Private involvement is one of the required levels of support that needs to be in place."

Donnelly said there are many hurdles with the Burt -- it has no capital budget for repairs, for example, and it's not air-conditioned -- that would discourage many would-be partners.

"We've never been afraid of a challenge. Our ideas are more of the same, only better from what people have seen in there," he said.

The Burt is managed by a 12-member volunteer board of directors and operated by a full-time staff of two, the theatre's website said. It is also a registered charitable organization.

'We have been approached and we have interest in seeing what might exist in one or both of those theatres as an opportunity for True North... '

-- Kevin Donnelly, senior vice-president of venues and entertainment at True North

As a not-for-profit organization, the Burt's board has to be risk-averse and it can't pursue events where it has to participate in the risk, Donnelly said.

"True North is entrepreneurial. We do that every day. For us to purchase an event outright, we wouldn't blink. It's how our business is structured and we've been successful doing so," he said.

The Burt has between 40 and 50 bookings per year, a number Donnelly said can be increased significantly.

"In their current configuration, they're not able to pick up the phone and book anybody. They respond to rental enquiries. They're not set up to take an entrepreneurial position. These shows can be risky, you can make a mistake and be down thousands of dollars," he said.

"There are probably shows that aren't coming to the region because nobody is programming (there)."

Donnelly said True North was able to learn from running the MTS Exhibition Hall, which operated for a short time in the former home of A&B Sound across the street from the MTS Centre.

"If we needed some electrical work done over there, we'd send our electrician over, same with housekeeping. We have a ticketing department and marketing support in-house," he said.

"We don't think we're branching out very much (with this possibility). We feel pretty comfortable about working in those spaces."

The concert-venue business is going to get more crowded when Club Regent Casino's new 1,400-seat venue opens in the spring. Donnelly said a small part of his motivation is tied to that pending competitor.

The seating capacity of the Burt is about 1,600 people. The theatre first opened in 1907.

Donnelly also admits to having a "soft spot" for the Burt as he was part of the group that gave it a new lease on life in 1992 when the shuttered movie theatre was reopened as the Walker Theatre.

"My name goes back on some documents there over 20 years ago," he said.

Donnelly sees some parallels between the Burt and the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver. He was part of the team at House of Blues Concerts that brought that historic building back to life -- thanks to a private-sector cash infusion of $4.5 million -- in 1999.

"It went from dark to more than 200 dates a year, every year since," he said.

The Pantages is a city-owned building operated by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Donnelly said the WSO is a "very logical" user for the building and working in conjunction with them is something he's exploring.

"If they see it differently, we would wish them the best," he said.

The Pantages opened as a vaudeville house in 1913.

Spokesmen for the Burt and Pantages could not be reached for comment.

Both theatres are situated in areas that are undergoing significant rebirth and represent important elements of the downtown.

"Neither one of them, we hope, should face being shuttered," Donnelly said.

True North has plenty of experience in booking shows at venues other than the MTS Centre, including Investors Group Field, Shaw Park and the old Canad Inns Stadium.

The highlight of 2013 was a sold-out performance by Paul McCartney in August at IGF.

 

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2013 B1

History

Updated on Tuesday, December 17, 2013 at 6:39 AM CST: Adds photo

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