No Messiah In Hall Next Christmas

December 20, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS—There may not be any room at the DeVos Performance Hall for the Messiah during the next holiday season, at least not on a Friday.

After a booking comprise wasn’t reached, members of the Convention and Arena Authority Operations Committee decided the issue.

The Grand Rapids Ballet was happy with the decision, and Calvin College can appeal it to the full board next month.

Committee members unanimously backed a recommendation made by SMG general manager Rich MacKeigan not to alter its booking policy at DeVos Performance Hall. The result of that decision could mean that the Calvin College Oratorio Society will not perform Handel’s Messiah in the hall on a Friday night in December for the immediate future, unless the CAA overrides the committee’s ruling.

Calvin College President Gaylen Byker said losing the Friday night performance would be a major blow to the production, which has been held downtown annually since 1933. He said it could threaten the very existence of the society.

“With 70 years of participation at this site, we believe the Oratorio Society and Messiah should have access to this community resource,” said Byker.

Byker reported that the society gets 80 percent of its revenue each year from the Messiah performances, with most of that income coming from the weekend presentation.

But the ballet said it needed that Friday evening for a performance of the Nutcracker. Laura Berman, associate artistic director for the Ballet, said the holiday tale accounts for half of the company’s earned income each year. She added that the sets for the production were specially built in 1987 to fit the DeVos stage, and moving the show to another venue would require that the expensive sets would have to be rebuilt.

MacKeigan offered Calvin College Wednesday and Thursday nights in the hall, but Byker said weekday dates have lower attendance figures and gate receipts than weekends do. Byker also said that the Messiah needs to run during the first two weeks of December because the students leave the campus on Christmas break after the 15th, and Calvin students make up about a third of the cast. So the program couldn’t be moved to later in the month.

“I have nothing but respect for the folks at Calvin and their fine program,” MacKeigan said. “My interpretation is any changes in dates for the arts tenants would require a change in the booking policy.

“The ballet has the right to these dates,” he added.

Committee members offered to postpone their decision for two weeks to give both sides another chance to reach a comprise, but neither party felt that one could be hammered-out by then. So the committee backed the recommendation from MacKeigan and awarded the date to the ballet.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to change policy for individual situations. I think it’s a slippery slope,” said Lew Chamberlin, operations committee chairman.

The booking policy offers date-protection privileges to the building’s four arts tenants,  status that is offered to them, in part, because they use the building frequently and are solely nonprofit, artistic entities.

“Although Calvin has a long history of performances in DeVos, and provides another exceptional artistic choice to this community, they are not frequent users of the facility and they are not a nonprofit entity dedicated exclusively to an artistic mission,” MacKeigan wrote in a memo to the committee.

The Oratorio Society presents two concerts annually; the Messiah and a spring event. The spring show was bumped from the hall by the Broadway Theater Group in 1995 and is now held in the school’s auditorium..

In 1996, the society was asked to move the Messiah dates from Friday and Saturday to Thursday and Friday. Byker said the city agreed that year that the society could have the Friday night date when the switch in dates was made.

Byker told committee members that he spoke with Richard DeVos recently and said that the Amway co-founder told him that the Oratorio Society was a key reason why the DeVos family contributed a large gift to the facility that bears their name. He added that DeVos felt the Messiah should be performed in the hall.

Chamberlin said this booking conflict reveals that the city needs another performance hall downtown, as from September through May the four arts tenants book 90 percent of the weekend dates during that period. Besides the ballet, the Grand Rapids Symphony, Opera Grand Rapids and the theater guild call the hall home.

The CAA board is set to meet on Jan. 22, the earliest date Calvin College can appeal the committee’s decision.

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