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That small town touch

That small town touch That small town touch

Spencer’s Tack Center team goes extra mile to make shows special

At about a minute before 2 o’clock on a mild winter Sunday afternoon in Spencer, the 400 or so people who have come to the LuCille Tack Center to see the show are settling into their seats. As Tack Center Executive Director Diane Veale slips out from between the black curtains at stage right to announce the day’s act, the crowd’s conversational murmur subsides to a hush. For the audience, the show is about to begin. For Veale, though, and perhaps 15 volunteers who are part of the day’s performance team, it’s just the opposite — the work is almost at an end.

The Jan. 26 act is a well-known and welltraveled one — the 3 Redneck Tenors. Finalists on America’s Got Talent a few years ago and regular performers at larger venues like those in Branson, Mo., the Tenors are on the last leg of a 3-day, 3-show swing from Chicago to Minocqua to Spencer. Before this leg is done, classically trained singers Matt Lord, Blake Davidson and Jonathon Fruge will have made a nice swap. To Spencer they’ve brought a new taste of the arts; from Spencer they learn what small-town hospitality is like.

The Tenors’ show is a rare mix of profes-


Barb and Bob Wesle help design the set for the 3 Redneck Tenors performance at the LuCille Tack Center for the Arts in Spencer on Jan. 26. Rather than pay an additional cost for the act to bring in its own set, the Tack Center’s volunteers built one from scratch with “redneck” pieces collected from local residents. From set design to lighting to hospitality for its performers, the Tack Center puts extra effort into hosting performances to give both its audiences and visiting performers a small-town welcome.

sional music talent and coarse comedy — “NASCAR meets opera,” their promotional poster pronounces. While all three singers have bona fide credentials in the vocal music world, their 2-hour set features everything from an opening rendition of John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” to an encore version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.” In between, there’s Figaro and Pavarotti, all wrapped into a “redneck” theme of down-home country comedy.

For the audience, the show is a treat. Lord picks out a few folks from the crowd with whom to interact, and does a running gag making fun of people from Stratford. Those 400 people who have paid $37 each to see the act, however, have little idea what went into making it happen.

Veale knows. She’s been an integral part of the Tack Center team for all of its 24 years so far. For most of the years, she was the Spencer High School vocal music teacher and one of the dedicated volunteers who helped stage about seven shows per year. Now, she’s the only paid Tack Center staff member, the executive director who brings everything from act procurement to ticket sales to publicity together to keep the Center humming.

And hum it does, the Tenors agree. Fruge, a Tenor for about seven of its 15 years of existence, coordinates the stage set-op and details of each performance. He’s done the version of the act performed in Spencer about 700 times, he estimates, and has seen it all in terms of a host venue’s preparation. At the Tack, Fruge said, it’s done the way its supposed to be done, from stage lighting to the pre-show meal served in the high school commons by Tack volunteers.

During the show, Fruge takes time to tell the Tack audience to appreciate what they have.

“I hope you know how lucky you are because this just doesn’t happen everywhere,” Fruge said.

Not just a 1-day thing

For the audiences that attend one of the Tack Center’s approximately seven shows each performance season, it’s a matter of getting a ticket and showing up maybe a half-hour before the house lights go down. For the Tack team, show day has been a work in progress for months.

The process for the 3 Redneck Tenor appearance in Spencer actually began in September 2018 — some 16 months before the show date — when Veale and Tack Center Board of Directors President Joe Burnett saw them perform at the annual Arts Midwest Booking Conference in Indianapolis. That is an event where various acts present their shows for arts center people who are looking to fill out their coming year’s schedule.

“Joe just got a kick out of them,” Veale said of the Tenors. “I, of course, liked their classical training. Joe just felt our audience would really appreciate them.”

After digging into the Tenors’ show to find out about pricing, technical demands, etc. the Tack Board decided to try to hire them the following March. A relatively expensive act for the Tack Center’s modest budget, the Tenors could only be hired for Spencer if they were playing other nearby venues. Through routing between various art centers, transportation and other costs can be shared.

“It took a few months to work out the routing,” Veale said. “It’s a huge puzzle and you don’t know (if you can bring in an act) until everyone in a routing is good to go.”

The Tack Center has a rough deadline of May 1 to finalize its upcoming September-April performance season because that’s when it prints its publicity brochure. The 2020-21 season is still up in the air.

“Just as soon as you think you have something, someone will fall through,” Veale said.

After a contract is finally signed and a performance date firmly set, there are various behind-the-scenes details to which to tend. There are W-9 tax forms and publicity matters, and contact with booking agents for details. In the 3 Tenors case, a booking agent handled the initial dealings, and then a tour manager took over.

Each act brings with it a specific contract and price. The cost of hiring an act in part determines the ticket price to be charged, although the Tack Center is able to offset that somewhat through individual show sponsorships.

Other cost considerations include putting an act up at a nearby hotel for a night or two, advertising the show, and technical needs the Center may not have in-house. Also, Veale said she has to be able to gauge possible interest in a particular show. From experience, she knows a country act may sell out, but a dance show may not.

“We can’t assume we’re going to sell 500 tickets,” she said.

Hours and hours of preparation

As the crowd files in to see the 3 Redneck Tenors, Veale says it looks as if the Tack Center will be at about 80 percent capacity this day. Ticket sales had been slow, but filling 400 seats for a mid-winter show is a good thing. The show the audience will take in this day is the result of numerous people putting in unpaid time beforehand.

The most obvious volunteer work for the Tenors show is the stage set. The Tenors have a redneckthemed set they sometimes bring with them, but that costs extra, so the Tack Center decided to make its own. The makeshift “redneck” camper and accompanying lawn trash that greets the three singers is a spittin’ image of their own.

Randy Veale was there when the Tenors first walked on the stage and saw what had been prepared for them.

“That’s the first time anybody’s come close to the original set,” Randy said. “That’s as close to the original as they’ve seen in a long time. They loved it.”

It didn’t just happen, though. Local handyman Mike Meinders built the camper prop out of plywood, painted it to match the Tenors’ set, and brought it in three pieces to the stage and assembled it. After that, Diane Veale put out a call to people she knew who might have pink flamingos and deer antlers and webbed lawn chairs and other redneck memorabilia to dress up the scene.

They responded. On Friday afternoon, Barb and Bob Wesle, Theresa and Burt Schauer, the Veales and others gathered on the stage to decorate. Diane knew the set needed an Aaron Rodgers life-sized cut-out, and knew who to call to find one. With photos of the Tenors’ set in hand, the volunteer team arranged the yard trellises and plastic plants and outhouse door to best replicate the original, hung a roll of toilet paper on a set of antlers, and called it good.

It would have been far easier to have the Tenors just do their spiel on an empty stage, but that’s not the way the Tack Center does it. Those personal touches are important for both welcoming artists and giving audiences a memorable experience.

Another small-town touch that Tack Center volunteers provide is a home-cooked meal for the performers. The show contracts usually have certain food demands, and a Tack Hospitality Committee takes care of each one individually. For the 3 Redneck Tenors show, Deb and Tom Schafer and Mary Zahn were in charge.

The Tenors showed up at about noon on Sunday, with a full meal waiting for them. After running sound checks, loading in the show clothes, etc., they sat down to eat, and invited all local crew members to join them.

Rubbing his belly after the meal, Tenor Davidson was asked if he’d indulged too much.

“We’ll find out in the opening number,” Davidson quipped.

Diane Veale said the Tack Center gets rave reviews from many performers for its hospitality and friendliness.

“Most of them are very appreciative,” she said. “Acts will send thank-you notes or emails saying they loved our hospitality and they’d love to come back. They see we’re just this little place in the middle of nowhere and we’re all volunteers. It warms their hearts to know that people are still doing that.”

Tack Center staffers often find themselves making new connections with performers by providing the personal touches they may not get at large venues. The Tenors, for instance? Well, they like chocolate chip cookies, Veale said.

“We like that we aim to please,” she said. “We try to give them as much as we can within our budget. For the most part, they’re just hard-working individuals like the rest of us. Many times you come to love them at these sorts of things. Other times, they keep to themselves.”

Technical requirements can be daunting

In 24 years of running the technical side of the Tack Center, Randy Veale has seen just about everything in performer contract requirements. Getting the center prepared for a show is a project in itself, and he estimates he spends about 500 hours every year on lights, sound and the like. That’s in addition to his full-time job as the Spencer High School instrumental music teacher.

Veale is executive director Diane’s husband, and together they have negotiated hundreds of contracts and set out as best they can to meet technical needs. Most times they can; other times it just won’t work and a particular act does not come to Spencer.

Diane said every show, every act, every performer, has their own unique set of needs. The 3 Redneck Tenors are the first to bring with them a pre-recorded soundtrack that they activate by themselves with foot buttons on the stage.

“There really isn’t a typical show,” Diane said. “This is an easier show than most. They’re more easy-going than most. They’ve got some southern charm to them.”

With each performance comes a written contract. It of course covers money and other formalities, but also equipment needs, dressing area requests, etc.

“Some of the contracts, especially from Los Angeles or Nashville or New York, can be really intimidating,” Diane said.

For any contract, Randy is most interested in the technical aspects. The Tack Center has upgraded to a digital soundboard and has about three-fourths of the lighting converted from incandescent to LED, but there are times when it needs something it does not have. If that’s the case, if it still wants to bring in an act, it has to spend the funds to rent what’s needed and that might drive ticket prices beyond what’s seen as affordable for the local audience Sometimes, that’s not practical.

“Sometimes we don’t even look at (an act),” Randy said. “It’s just too much effort for what we’re going to get out of it.” When an act is hired, Randy receives technical requests ahead of time, and does what he can within the Tack’s capabilities to meet them. “We’re small theater, so I try to figure out how I can scale it down to make it work,” he said. That was a daunting task years ago, before the switch to LED lights. With the old incandescent lights — which sucked 750 to 1,000 watts apiece — he had to physically ascend to the center ceiling on a lift to install color gels over lights and arrange them for certain angles.

“I had to move every single fixture for some shows,” he said. “There were 50 to 60 of them. I touched every single one of them.”

Now, with the LED lights, he can control much of the ambience in the theatre from the sound booth. On a computer screen, with the single drag of a finger, he can

“I hope you know how lucky you are because this just doesn’t happen everywhere,” -- 3 Redneck Tenors member Jonathan Fruge “Acts will send thank-you notes or emails saying they loved our hospitality and they’d love to come back. They see we’re just this little place in the middle of nowhere and we’re all volunteers. It warms their hearts to know that people are still doing that.”-- Tack Center Executive Director Diane Veale

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO go from a garish green to a pleasing purple.

With the old system, “We were only capable of putting two or three colors for each show,” Randy said. “Now I can have hundreds of different looks programmed into the board.”

It still takes time. On the Saturday prior to the Tenors’ show, Randy spent half a day setting up the color plan based on a script the act had given him.

“I spent about four hours yesterday programming this in,” he said as Sunday’s first show-goers trickled in. “I had 10 hours into this before even coming here today. I’ve spent 50-hour weeks just doing lights.”

The Tack Center is now hiring a sound technician for shows, to begin weaning itself off of Randy’s expertise and volunteer time when he retires. While having the Tack Center for him has been a tremendous time draw, he also realizes it’s been a wonderful experience for Spencer’s students and the community. While kids in most area high schools do their plays and concerts in a gym, those in Spencer have a real stage with state-of-the-art lights and sound.

“It’s been fun. We’ve loved doing it,” he said. “It’s been so great for our community.”

While he realizes that not many people know what really goes into running a fine arts center with mostly volunteers, a few dedicated ones do.

“I think there’s a really core group of people that really get it,” he said.

Many of those people are Center volunteers, and/or contributors who help keep budgets in the black.

What those folks do is put Spencer on the cultural arts map. As a new set of faces file in for the 3 Redneck Tenors show, Randy said he is always amazed to see so many new ones.

“What surprises me is from how far they come,” he said. “Every show has a different face. They’re coming from all over to Spencer to come to this.”

Diane said when the Tack Center first began operation after the $650,000 bequest from LuCille Tack upon her death, the expectation was that most of the crowd would come from Spencer and Marshfi eld and Loyal and other nearby towns. Instead, they come from all over the state, with a new batch turning out for any new type of performer.

And that is in keeping with the Tack Center’s mission, to expose folks to things they may never have seen before. While Randy said the Center would bring in nothing but country singers if all it wanted to do was fill seats, it seeks diverse acts to stretch audiences’ artistic knowledge.

“Our goal is to bring the world to Spencer, to broaden our community,” he said.

The 3 Redneck Tenor show may have been a sneaky way to accomplish that. The hook to draw the audience was the redneck humor, but folks who came out for that also got a good dose of classicallytrained opera voices. “We figured we’d have them in their seats and they’d hear this classical music,” Diane said, “and see you could have both at once.”

And the next one begins …

By 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, the 3 Redneck Tenors were loading out for their next destination, the parking lot was mostly empty, and those same volunteers who served as show ushers and doormen and ticket sales people were cleaning up. Especially when the Tack Center is used often for school activities, there’s no time to waste.

“We’re always the last to leave,” Diane said. “We have to clean up the stage because there’s probably something coming in the next morning.”

And there will be, as the school music departments’ annual Cabaret is just a week away. Randy said that show is one of the biggest lighting challenges of the year, and he’ll again be spending hours preparing for it.

For Diane, the next show comes on Feb. 13 when a “Heart” tribute band comes to town on a Thursday evening. That involves an entirely different contract, a new batch of publicity to get out, another unique set of technical requirements, and on it goes. After the Tenors, and after the Heart tribute group, and then after whatever’s next, the hope is that whomever comes to the shows will leave with a new appreciation for the arts.

“It’s our mission statement to try to push people outside of their boundaries just a little bit to see what’s possible in the world,” she said.