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Big man behind the scenes


For close to 30 of his 52 years, John Parkhurst has helped Rochester's fickle music motor run. On the phone with agents and managers, in the audience with the people, or in the trenches with performers and stagehands, his casual confidence and charm belie the day-in day-out obstacles of the biz. He makes it look so easy. He makes it look fun.

            "I enjoy music," he says recently over a cup of coffee. "I enjoy all types of music. I enjoy the accomplishment of seeing people have a great time. I take it personally. As my wife will tell you, she can probably count on one hand the amount of days I've said 'I don't want to go to work today.' I enjoy what I do."

            This infectious joy is apparent in Parkhurst's involvement with the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, where he oversees operations at the Auditorium Theatre and the Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center, and where he is currently spearheading initiatives to improve both. It is also clear that Mayor Bill Johnson's dream of the Rochester MusicFest (which just concluded its ninth year) would be just that, were it not for Parkhurst's passion, drive, and hard work.

            "I started when I was in high school, as a stage hand," he says. "My first concert was '68 or '69. It was The Who at the War Memorial." Bitten by the backstage bug, Parkhurst headed back behind the scenes shortly after returning home from the service.

            "I started doing stage work at the Eastman Theatre," he says. "I actually had jobs at RG&E and the post office, but I just kept doing shows. I never took those two jobs. I was hauling gear." It was in his blood. "I was actually the third generation in my family to do that type of work. I've been behind the scenes since 1968."

During the summer, all RBTL shows are put on at the 20-year-old Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center, in Canandaigua. Soon after being built as a summer home for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, FLPAC began attracting national touring talent of all genres. Despite its beautiful, serene locale in Canandaigua, FLPAC is now outdated and incapable of hosting marketable shows. But according to Parkhurst, that's going to change.

            "FLPAC was designed for the orchestra," he says. "It was an orchestra shell. As times change, the stage shows its limitations. We built it with 2,600 inside seats, but it really needed 5,000 inside seats. For the last five to seven years, the shows have been getting bigger and we could not fit them on that stage. The artists were asking for more money. So we've known for the past five years or so that we needed to make some changes down there."

            But Parkhurst stresses that the facility's shortcomings were not due to a lack of foresight.

            "We were actually ahead of our time," he says. "It was in '83, and it was one of the first venues like that built. Right after that, all these places started popping up across the country." It was the seasonal orchestra shell boom that resuscitated many otherwise flat-lined musical careers.

            "As the business changed and the summer venues started building around the country, it revived the careers of the artists," Parkhurst says. Whether it was due to nostalgia or their kids' college tuition, artists who didn't tour throughout the year finally had an outlet. "You've got Crosby, Stills, and Nash; James Taylor," he says. "You look at these bands, their lives have been extended."

            But Parkhurst, though a towering presence at 6 feet 7 inches, isn't content to simply roam with the dinosaurs. FLPAC needs a facelift, he says, to attract bigger contemporary acts. And the estimated $10 million renovations rest solely on the shoulders of RBTL and Finger Lakes Community College.

            "The stage needs to change drastically," Parkhurst says. "We have to expand the structure of the stage so we can bring in other events." Plans also call for adding more seats, and installing a full fly system for lights and backdrops. But that's not all.

            "The college has been very successful with a great music recording program," he says. "And I want to work with them and adapt that into the facility. There's also the need for a 500- to 750-seat theater year-round. One of the thoughts is to make that part of the complex." Parkhurst also mentions the possibility of summer music camps. In turn, the college is taking some of the weight off RBTL.

            "The college is picking up some of the everyday costs --- electricity, water, sewer, taxes, that kind of stuff --- so we don't have that overhead burden," Parkhurst says. "Thanks to the college, that puts us in a better position."

            This is all encapsulated in a two- to three-year plan, according to his projections, with a portion of the funding coming from SUNY and the rest from "yet to be determined" private interests. "Oh, we'll be out raising money to make it a real number-one cultural place," Parkhurst says. "A cultural center."

Since the FLPAC season is so short, RBTL's home for most of the year is the Auditorium Theatre on East Main Street. The Auditorium brings in Broadway shows, comedy, plays, and rock, r&b, and gospel concerts.

            Thanks to a $1 million grant from the state, RBTL is making an offer to purchase the Auditorium Theatre from its current owners, Raymond and William Saucke. Don Jeffries, RBTL president, says he hopes to close on the deal some time in August. Owning the Auditorium Theatre could save RBTL $200,000 in annual leasing costs.

            "Rochester is the only community in New York that doesn't have a theater owned by a municipality," Parkhurst says. "And it's very difficult to run a theater, to own a theater, without government help, financially speaking." And just as he hopes with FLPAC, Parkhurst plans to drag the Auditorium into the 21st century.

            "We couldn't make improvements to a building we didn't own," he explains. "But we couldn't just buy the place and leave it how it was."

            Renovations include new, wider seats and expanded, new bathrooms. RBTL will also move their offices from Gibbs Street into the facility. All told, about $1.5 million will go into improvements to the Auditorium Theatre. RBTL is hoping to finance those renovations through a bank loan, which it will pay off through ticket proceeds. Details of the loan are still being hammered out, but RBTL is hoping to begin renovations this summer.

The scope of Parkhurst's influence and expertise doesn't stop at these two venues. The Rochester MusicFest has his prints all over it. The mayor's wish was Parkhurst's command.

            "He's essentially a maestro of logistics," says Loretta Scott, the city's parks, recreation, and human services commissioner. "There are myriad details involved in pulling off an event the size of the Rochester MusicFest. John has absolute, total control making all of that happen in the time that it needs to happen and within budget."

            Parkhurst's concern is obviously the music, not just the money.

            "You don't get the sense of some carpetbagger who's coming in to make a quick buck," Scott says. "He's really concerned about the activities he's involved with and how they impact making life better. He's truly committed to conducting and producing first-class events."

            The concept was simple: "To bring music downtown," Parkhurst says. "Just having a great festival that would draw regionally. And it's worked. We've moved from Brown's Race to Genesee Valley Park. This year, our vendors have doubled. Ticket sales in Buffalo and Syracuse have doubled."

            Though the mayor's initial dream was of an all-encompassing, something-for-everyone festival, it soon copped more urban leanings.

            "It just made more sense," Parkhurst says. "There was more response. And with the high guarantees going, you couldn't do a good festival and please everybody. You were just going to wind up with pockets of this and that. The r&b thing made a lot of sense. There is a market and those artists weren't coming to Rochester. We were missing out on a whole segment of the public. The urban market was one that was being ignored."

With a grin and rolled-up sleeves, Parkhurst looks to the future optimistically, despite venue constraints and a lagging economy.

            "I wish the city had another venue," he says. "A performing arts center."            RBTL got the ball rolling and paid for the first feasibility study for a potential downtown performing arts center. It proved feasible. "The need is there," he says. But this is no small process.

            "As you know, it's a big project," he says. "Obviously, it's gotten a little bogged down. The economy has had a lot to do with that." Though politics plays a large part, Parkhurst doesn't point to anyone really standing in the way.

            "I think it's just getting everybody on the same page," he says. "A site has to be chosen and everybody has to come together on just what it is that's going to be built."

            He also wishes for promotional diversity. "Clear Channel is the elephant taking over everything," he says. "They've taken over these venues and they're paying some huge guarantees to some artists. And with the economy, they're just not doing the business. I mean, you're seeing now, $10 lawn seats at some of these shows. They're making multi-hundred-thousand-dollar guarantees and they're not filling the venues." Parkhurst complains this is squeezing out smaller localized promoters, like RBTL.

            "A small venue like ours, we can't compete with that. We don't have a prayer."

            For every rock star, for every event, there's someone behind the scenes juggling a multitude of impossible tasks. Parkhust digs the view from his behind-the-scenes perch.

            "There was a band last year where the guitar player went over and punched out the monitor guy," he laughs. "We see all this from a different angle."

            "There's a great feeling of accomplishment," he says. "I can honestly say that no two days are really the same. There's always something different. It's a great feeling."