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Thinking Big 

by Joel Smith


You ask Mitch Silver what he thinks about his newest prize possession and he's likely to talk your ear off. And for a guy who's made a career of buying and selling expensive and exotic automobiles, his going on about an old theater comes as something of a surprise.


But then, the Met isn't just some old theater. At least Silver doesn't think so.


The 50-year-old entrepreneur, who, with his wife Cindy, has run Silver Collector Car Auctions in Spokane for the last 25 years, purchased the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center for $808,000. The theater, at Sprague and Lincoln in Spokane, was put on the block following Metropolitan Mortgage's break-up and subsequent Chapter 11 reorganization in February. For a while, the future of the theater was in doubt. But Silver offered to buy the local landmark in April and inked the deal in late October.


But so what? So some poor sap scooped up another floating scrap of Met Mortgage's capsized lifeboat. Why shouldn't this story be just another arcane side note buried deep in the daily's business section?


Because while to the naked eye the Met looks much as it did before the purchase -- and even before the explosion of its parent company -- Silver makes it plain that change is a-brewing. And what's more, those changes look to be at the forefront of a new and rejuvenating wave in downtown Spokane's arts renaissance.


For the Met's part, it may be a quiet renaissance, at least at first. Silver likes to call his prize "the New Met," but he emphasizes that in many ways the theater will stay the same. According to longtime manager Michael Smith (whose services have been retained, along with those of technical director Brian Ritter and the rest of the small staff), in one of their first meetings after the purchase, Silver instructed him to "just keep doing what you do the way you do it." Smith adds, wryly, "He hasn't asked me what I do yet."


But that will likely mean a familiar series of rentals, from the Symphony to KPBX kids' concerts. Prices for those rentals, and ticket prices for attendance, should also stay relatively flat, they say.


The real change, Silver emphasizes, is in quantity and quality. "Our goal is to get the Met used more," he says. "It's a wide-open calendar, and we're not limited to anything. We're still brainstorming. Within 90 days, I would anticipate about four new uses a month."


To do that, Silver and Smith plan to extend the theater's primary function beyond a simple rental facility and into the world of promotions. They begin to rattle off possibilities. Smith suggests better advertising for events, much as the Big Easy has done. And the reinstatement of the monthly newsletter, which went down with the Met Mortgage ship. Silver talks about cooperative promotions with public radio, where the theater brings in an act of interest to KPBX listeners (let's say James Taylor), the station flogs it on air and proceeds go to public radio.


They keep going. What about package nights? You do a classic cinema series, tie it together with a singles night, get a lecturer to come in and introduce the films, have mingling time at the intermission. Huzzah! Team up with a local smooth jazz station and bring in Wynton Marsalis. Yahoo! A cooperative fundraiser/promotional deal with Habitat for Humanity -- maybe they could get Jimmy Carter to speak!


Their bubbly enthusiasm for creative promotions is matched only by their desire to bring in more and different kinds of shows. "I'm a show ho," says Smith, as he pulls up the dazzling Web site of a belly dancing company that the theater has been courting. He and Silver say they want to draw groups that have never come to Spokane before. They want to see plays, music, comedy, films combined with music, films combined with lectures. Silver speaks vaguely about a longer-running play he's trying to get. He won't cough up the name, but he says it could be "longer than anything that's ever run in Spokane."


Perhaps the most buzz-worthy of the new Met's efforts is an attempt to bring in three to four high-end tickets per year. Paul Simon's name keeps coming up. Silver says, "The question is in front of him right now ... we haven't gotten the answer." But he thinks the atmosphere of a small, historic velvet-seat theater (the Met holds about 750), where the audience hangs on the performer's every word, could be just enough to bring in big-name performers like Simon -- and Billy Crystal and Kris Kristofferson and Roberta Flack.


Big names can also bring a big risk to the Met, however, with potential ticket prices for someone like Paul Simon hanging up around $200 a pop.


Craig Heimbigner, who has been promoting shows at the Met and throughout the city for almost 20 years, agrees with the risk factor. "That would scare the hell out of me," he says, "Because if [audiences] don't come -- holy Moses. You're dead by the thousands." He adds, "I wouldn't line out a series of those [big-name shows]. I guess I'd try one and see what happens. I would say there's a lot of risk in that ... but I think it's doable."


That tentative "do-ability," along with more shows and more rigorous promotion, is what Silver seems to be banking on. Like much of the rest of the city, he's aware that Met Mortgage regularly subsidized the theater to the tune of some $200,000 a year just to keep it afloat. Asked whether he would do the same, Silver says only, "I hope not. My goal would be to move it towards an area of self-sufficiency." Michael Smith agrees, saying, "I want to make sure Mitch gets his money back."


If the high-end-ticket gamble pays off, they could be in luck. But that depends on whether Spokane is ready to shell out that kind of cash for entertainment.





Mike Edwards couldn't be happier with the Met's purchase. The president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership says, "I've only heard good things about Mitch Silver. We have every confidence that the Met will continue to be an important feature of the Davenport District."


He believes that any success Silver can pull off at the Met will be a success for the city as a whole and the arts district in particular. "Generally, arts have a lot to do with quality of life and quality of place. And so a community that has a vibrant performing arts scene ... makes for a richer environment."


If that's so, then Edwards and other downtown denizens may be on the verge of a veritable mousse cake of urban atmosphere. Because at the same time that the Met is promising to increase and diversify its offerings, just one block away, developers are chipping away at a brand new casino, a small luxury hotel, a new upscale restaurant and the restoration of a second historical theater (see sidebar). Not to mention the success of the still-new CenterStage complex and the Big Easy, and smaller venues like Joeco Brazil's, the Twilight Room, the Spike and the Blue Spark.


But with the recent growth have come questions -- how far can the city's arts scene grow before it busts? If you combine only the larger musical venues -- the Arena, the Met, the Big Easy, the Opera House and CenterStage -- you get venue seating for about 20,000 people. Add on the Fox Theater when it comes online and you've got almost 2,000 more. That may be more venue capacity than Spokane has ever seen, even back in Bing Crosby's heyday. Aren't we always hearing about some club closing down? Is there enough demand to maintain this kind of supply?


Mike Edwards thinks so. He says that the growth of the arts scene in Spokane has "been kind of slow and steady. [But] I think the population of attendees has kind of kept pace with that." Mitch Silver agrees, suggesting that "there are lots of people who still sit at home and don't get out and don't see what's happening." Michael Smith adds, "I really see this as being the happening area, and I don't see it slowing down. Unbelievably, it sustains itself. So far things are packed around here." If parking is any indication of success, it's worth noting that since about the time the Big Easy opened, on any given weekend night, finding a place to park in downtown Spokane can require some effort.


Still, Heimbigner has his doubts. He says, "I just don't think there's a large-enough audience. I think Spokane is really pushing [it]. You look around and go, 'Man, there's a lot happening. Who's going to support this?'" He adds, "Spokane isn't Boise, it isn't Seattle, it isn't any of those things. It's a giant Colfax."


Like Silver and Smith at the Met, and Edwards at the Downtown Spokane Partnership, Heimbigner thinks Spokane can pull off a working arts scene with coordination between venues. He says that bringing Dolly Parton to, say, the Opera House, would be suicide if Shania Twain was playing the Arena within a few days; both shows would suffer. By working together to plan a diverse menu of shows, venues can maintain attendance at their own shows while strengthening the larger scene. And the stronger the larger scene, the more big-name acts will go out of their way to play in Spokane, making the scene even stronger.


Which is exactly the kind of thing Mitch Silver and Michael Smith are banking on within their own venue -- more and different kinds of performances, finding their niche among the other venues, working with other organizations to get the word out -- and just hoping that Spokane shows up.


"I'm real optimistic," says Silver. "I've been very pleased with, coming out of the blocks, what we've had happen."


Perhaps reflecting on the urban renaissance his theater could help bring about, Smith adds, "It's a whole new ballgame -- you gotta like that."





ARTS DISTRICT PROJECTS


The Met


Status: Under new management


Beefing up entertainment options, looking to bring in big-name acts for the Mom and Dad generation.





The Fox Theater


Status: under construction, seeking donations, no completion date yet


The Symphony's already collected $12 million of the $25 million or so that it will take to restore the Fox. Symphony officials are considering opening in phases. The money goes towards doubling lobby space, quadrupling restrooms, complying with ADA regulations, refurbishing or replacing seating for 1,625, increasing stage depth and building an orchestra pit.





Marilyn's on Monroe


Status: opening in the Big Easy block in early March 2005


Upscale Ratpack-themed casino/restaurant/lounge with 15 digital gaming tables. Will also showcase live comedy and other entertainment.





The Montvale Hotel


Status: opening Jan. 8, 2005


36-room luxury hotel above Far West Billiards. Catering by Catacombs.





Latitude


Status: opening February 2005


The Montvale Hotel's restaurant. Northwest cuisine with a French twist. Wedged between Far West Billiards and CenterStage.





Publication date: 12/02/04

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