Adina Erwin began her career live entertainment career in the world of college athletics. The industry veteran spent years working with collegiate and professional sports teams and even worked on the Super Bowl when it hit Jacksonville, Florida in 2005. Erwin decided to branch out in the venue world, serving as Director of the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts.
“I don’t look at myself as a theater person necessarily,” Erwin told Amplify. “I look at myself as an entertainment venue person. I’m always looking for and trying to get experiences that are about entertainment venues. It doesn’t matter what type thing. I don’t limit myself with that.”
Following her time at the performing arts center, Erwin took hers skills working with theater to the iconic Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Built in 1929, the Fox in Atlanta is one of the few remaining venues built by William Fox in the 1920s and 30s. In the 1970s, the theater that was almost torn down and replaced with a parking structure, so the Atlanta community came together to raise funds through benefit concerts headlined by Lynard Skynyrd, Liberace and many more. Through the efforts of Atlanta Landmarks – the nonprofit that currently runs the theater – the Fox was named a historic landmark in 1976.
Amplify caught up with Erwin to discuss her career in the live entertainment world and inquire about being the Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of a building that is an attraction on its own.
The Fox Theatre in Atlanta has been around since the late 1920s. Why do you think the venue is so renowned and still competitive?
I think it’s because we have a really good relationship (with the community). I think paying honor to our history, you know, opening in 1929 and being a preservation organization, we really use that as a strength of ours to provide an authentic experience that has a historic aspect to it. We do a good job of that but we also do a good job of staying relevant in the marketplace. We look at the fact from that perspective, that we are a preservation organization. But entertainment is our business. And so I think we’ve done a really good job of managing the balance between staying relevant, being an entertainment venue in a very competitive market but also staying true to our history and the preservation aspects of keeping this national landmark alive.
There’s only a handful of the Fox Theatres left, right?
Yeah there’s a handful of them, especially the large Fox Theatres. There’s three large larger Fox Theatres still that show the Detroit Fox, the St. Louis Fox, and the Atlanta Fox. When I say large it’s because William Fox only built maybe five or six of the larger Fox Theatres that fit four to five thousand plus seats. The rest of them around the country, you know, are much smaller. But he wanted to have these larger kind of theaters in some of the key markets. They were really prevalent in the 1920s. There definitely used to be a Fox Theater in Brooklyn. There was one in Oakland at one point. I actually think the Oakland one was restored, but I don’t think it was restored to the same seating capacity. It was much bigger at one point. So yes those three are still operating with the same size capacity around the country right now.
The Fox Theatre was also one of the first theaters in Atlanta to host black and white audiences?
I don’t know if that was an accurate statement. I will say that from what I’ve heard, we definitely desegregated early on and we desegregated voluntarily, before it was regulated that all public spaces had to be segregated.
Are there still remnants of that time?
We don’t have signs up necessarily but they’re still physical reminders of the segregation and the segregated area. For instance, what we call our gallery area was a segregated area and there’s actually kind of a half wall at the top of the theater that divides that section from the rest of the seats in the balcony. We have the stairs that lead directly up to the gallery. Those are the stairs that made up the “colored” entrance where people of color had to come in on the outside of the building, from a different entrance and take the stairs up to what is now the gallery. That separate ticket office and the ticket office window that was at the bottom of those stairs is still there.
The bathrooms up in the gallery are also very different than the bathrooms in the rest of the building. Something as subtle as the language is very different. Downstairs in the main auditorium, the signs for those restrooms say ladies’ lounge and gentlemen’s lounge. Whereas when you get into the gallery the two restrooms are definitely much smaller. They’re definitely not as ornately decorated. And I think it is girls and boys are what the signs say. We have original signage from that time period and that’s what it says. We oftentimes do educational tours around the civil rights. And because of the fact that we have a lot of in place artifacts of that time period. People can actually experience what it would have been like to come to the Fox Theatre and have to walk up all those stairs to get to the gallery past the colored box office and all that.
What is is like being the Vice President for a historical landmark?
It’s a preservation organization so we follow the Secretary of Interior standard that dictates how we are to manage this landmark, preserve the landmark. The preservation methodology that we go about when we are making repairs to original pieces, the original furnishings, the original surfaces, all of those things. What is different is that our repairs and maintenance often have an added layer. For example, when we have to replace our carpet this is not the original carpet from 1929, but it is an exact replica of what would have been on the floor in 1929. We have an original piece of the carpet from 1929 and we matched the colors exactly and recreated the pattern exactly from that original piece of carpet. So it’s an extra step that we have to think about. The furnishings that we have in the building are from 1929. We have a furniture collection and we have a lighting collection and all of this is actually in the public spaces and it’s used by our patrons. We don’t throw those things out when they break. We don’t get new ones. It’s a different mindset.
As an older theater, do you find it hard to compete because of new technology?
No. We’ve been very purposeful about making sure that we are positioned well to compete because remember, we are a historic landmark but the business that supports this preservation organization is the entertainment business. The only way that we can stay competitive in that business is to be able to provide technology and services and experiences that are very similar to Philips Arena in the market or the Tabernacle or the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. We put about $1.5 to $2 million back into the building every year from a capital expenditure perspective. A large part of those capital expenditures are driven towards technology. We have a digital antenna system so that people can use their cellular phones and use their cellular data to be able to stay connected. We have wi-fi in the auditorium and a state-of-the-art sound system. We put a lot of money into making sure that you are able to step back in time to 1929 but you can still use your cell phone and the sound is going to be phenomenal.
How did you end up in the entertainment business?
I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I worked a part-time job at the North Carolina high school athletic association. I interned in the athletic department and I was going down the path of getting into sports management athletic administration. While I was working at the Smith Center, I realized that there was a way to do that but not necessarily be in professional teams or collegiate athletics. I could actually manage the buildings that they play in. My mission was to work in arenas. My initial experience was working in an arena that had an NBA or NHL team. Then I worked for SMG for a number of years and I moved around a bit with that company and took advantage of the opportunities that they provided which weren’t always in arenas but also in performing arts.
When I left North Carolina I came back to Charlotte for a while and worked at the Charlotte Coliseum which is where the Hornets played at that time. I went back to school to the University of Massachusetts and got my degree in sport management. I focused on venue management and that’s where my job led me. I worked at amphitheaters, conventions centers, theaters and arenas. I also worked with the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.
Did you have any mentors throughout the years as you were building your career?
Sporty Jeralds has been my mentor since the beginning. He is now a professor at the University of South Carolina. But at the time when I met him he was actually the General Manager at the Charlotte Coliseum. When I graduated from being a rep for North Carolina I moved back to Charlotte. I didn’t have a job. So I worked as an event receptionist at the Charlotte Coliseum and it was at that point that I learned that this could be a career. Since then he’s been a great mentor to me. I’ve always consulted him on whether new jobs were a good opportunity or not. He’s just been such a generous person to everyone in the industry and he’s always about you. He always said “each one, teach one.” He continues to be my mentor to this day.
How long have you been working with the Fox Theatre?
I’ve been here for 12 and a half years.
Did you move to the Fox Theater as the GM or were you in a different position?
I moved to the Fox the as the Assistant General Manager from Jacksonville, Florida. I had been living in Jacksonville and was the director at the time for the Center for the Performing Arts in Jacksonville.
Since you’ve been in Atlanta have you found any particular genres that work really well for the Fox Theatre?
I think Broadway is our probably our biggest genre that we host here at the Fox. But that’s one of the things that was so attractive to me about the Fox. When I was in Jacksonville at the Performing Arts Center I was thinking about how I could get back into the arena side of the business. When the Fox opportunity came my way, it was one of the few theater opportunities that would have even considered because the programming mix at there. We do everything except for sporting events and we’ve done unique kinds of events around sports. For instance, we did the ELeauge championships back in January and we’ve done UFC weigh ins here. But in addition to that, we do all kinds of concerts. Many acts that are looking for a more intimate setting and they’re looking for looking for a larger opportunity, but they don’t want to go into an arena. We’re almost 5,000 seats so we’re kind of sitting in a really good sweet spot to get a lot of good acts coming through here. We’ve got Lil Yachty coming in October and we just did Sturgill Simpson. There really isn’t anything that we don’t do. We also do over 150 private events each year, so we’re very busy building with a diverse programming mix and that is what is attractive.
In your last 12 and a half years that you’ve been there, have there been any particular performances or any particular shows that have stood out for you?
I think when Prince came. We were his last concert before he passed away and he did two shows with just a piano and it was phenomenal. Of course we didn’t know at the time that he was going to pass away soon thereafter. But even if he hadn’t, that would be on my list. It was an interesting unique experience. You really got to see his genius and then the energy from the audience and how he interacted with the audience was so intimate and so endearing. That was a standout.
Had you ever seen Prince perform before those two nights?
I had never gone to a Prince concert before. I was a Prince fan and had been a fan since the 80s. So it was an honor to see him.
Were you able to watch a decent amount of that show or where you running around like most GMs have to on show nights?
It’s hard to sit down and watch a show. It’s like when you invite somebody to your home for dinner. You’re never really relaxed because you’re entertaining. It’s the same here. We’ve invited people into our home and while I may be able to catch a few glimpses of the shows, I’m trying to make sure that everybody is having a good time and they’ve got enough to eat and they love what they’re eating and all those things. I would say for the Prince show I did. I actually did. I paid attention and I watched that show. I came to that show and it’s one of the few times that I’ve done that in the last maybe decade or so.
When you were growing up were there any venues that you liked to go to or music that you liked to go see?
The Charlotte Coliseum, not the one that I worked at but the old one which I believe was built back in the 40s or the 50s. It was a big deal when a show came. That’s where I saw the circus and the ice capades. I remember seeing Earth, Wind and Fire at the old Charlotte Coliseum. That coliseum holds a place in my heart because it was one of my first experiences with live event entertainment.
I would go to what was then called Blockbuster Pavilion in Charlotte. I think it’s now another Verizon Wireless kind of amphitheater. When I was in college I would go to Walnut Creek Amphitheater. Those were you know the kind of things that I went to as I was coming of age and going to the shows on my own.
What kind of music were you into?
I grew up in a in a in an environment that was really strong in R&B and I’m of the age of when hip-hop started to come on the scene in the late 70s and 80s. So early rap and then when I was able to go see my own shows I saw remember going to see New Edition. Because of that period just going to see a lot of the rap concerts like Kurtis Blow and Run DMC and Public Enemy.
Is there any artist or act that you haven’t worked with yet that you would like to work with?
I’m a big hip-hop person so I would say Kendrick Lamar or I’m always thinking about artists that are going to tap into an audience in the Atlanta and that the Atlanta community doesn’t see very often. That brings a different genre or a different audience into the Fox that we that we wouldn’t normally have visiting on a regular basis. I’m always interested in getting artists or programming that’s going to get those those types of audience segments into the building.
With record sales down, has the Fox seen an increase in acts since so many artists have to tour now?
I think we’ve done a good job with acquiring content. Atlanta has so many venues to choose from that an uptick gets diluted pretty quickly when you hit the market. I would say that we’ve done a good job of getting more aggressive with our programming approach and forging relationships with the agents and the artist managers. The Fox itself plays a role in that because many artists that come through here, playing the Fox is a rite of passage. Like Bob Dylan chose the Fox. He wanted to play the Fox. That’s where you see a good example of where the history of the Fox and authenticity and the preservation piece kind of intersects with entertainment. There are so many people who have graced our stage and that carries a layer of consideration when it comes to booking artists here. Even in a market that is so competitive we’ve had to look at how we program and I think that’s the reason why we’ve been able to sustain a good programming mix and have shows that people really want to continue visiting the Fox for.
Do you foresee any challenges in the industry in the coming years?
I’m always looking at what’s happening with some of the bigger promoting organizations like Live Nation and AEG. The different moves that they’re making and the alignments that they have from a ticketing perspective and an artist management perspective. The Fox is an independent venue. We’re not owned by the city of Atlanta or a municipality. We don’t necessarily have a programming relationship or an operating relationship with Live Nation or AEG other than they bring shows. We don’t have a contract with them. We’re not subsidized by the public so we have to get it and make it on our own. If we don’t get it, the doors close.
We look at Atlanta, which is saturated with venues and yet new venues continue to come on line in the metro Atlanta area. Casino gaming is trying to come into the state of Georgia. And while we’re not advocating against gambling necessarily, we are concerned about the entertainment venues that those casinos bring into the marketplace. Casinos use their entertainment venues to draw people into their spaces and they pay a lot more for artists, often times more than the asking price. That affects the market as far as purchasing talent. Then they have radius clauses. So they purchase James Taylor and pay him four times his asking price then won’t let him play again for another two or three years within 90 miles of whatever. Well, the Fox can’t do that.
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