Two hives of activity that keep Columbia buzzing are the Koger Center for the Arts and Colonial Life Arena. Whether they’re hosting NCAA tournaments, world-class concerts, figure skating, earth-shaking motorsports, Broadway productions or the circus, these facilities offer diverse entertainment options, of which Columbians are understandably proud.
Many remember the much-anticipated opening of the Ira and Nancy Koger Center for the Arts on an unusually mild January evening 23 years ago. The London Philharmonic Orchestra christened the stage that night, and it has been lit up ever since. “The Koger Center demonstrates the cooperative spirit present in this community,” says Chip Wade, marketing director. “Its construction is the product of a shared dream and a shared labor of love for many in the community; it is a combined effort, with both public and private entities contributing to make it a reality.”
Nancy and Ira Koger were generous philanthropic visionaries who made a substantial donation from their personal and corporate funds to construct their namesake arts center. Inside, the 2,256-seat auditorium is named Gonzales Hall after the Gonzales brothers – Ambrose Elliott, Narciso Gerner and William Elliott – who were central to the founding of The State newspaper in Columbia. A large contribution by the brothers’ descendants to the Koger Center Building fund was made to honor them and to encourage and promote the arts in Columbia. Other major donations for construction costs were made by the Knight Foundation of Akron, Ohio, Richland County and the City of Columbia. The University of South Carolina and the Carolina Research and Development Foundation obtained private gifts for the remainder of the construction costs.
U.S.C. owns and operates the Koger Center, which features an ultramodern concert hall, state-of-the-art stage, sound and lighting, and an expansive lobby for displays and exhibits. It accommodates the needs of various academic departments for music classes, presentations and orientations, as well as a variety of other university events. Funding comes from a combination of university funds and fees from facility rentals. After U.S.C., Chip explains that the center’s next obligation is to the City of Columbia and Richland County. The Koger Center hosts several community performing arts groups such as the Columbia City Ballet, The South Carolina Philharmonic, Columbia Classical Ballet and Broadway in Columbia; their events are given the next priority on the calendar. “
Once the dates for university and community group events have been scheduled, we are able to work with promoters to bring other events and shows to Columbia, filling the remaining free dates.”
The Koger Center calendar is set up to three years in advance to carefully avoid scheduling conflicts with U.S.C.’s academic calendar. After university and community events, priority is given to major community building users who contract for three or more productions per year or have historically had one performance with the Koger for at least three consecutive years. These dates are carefully coordinated so as not to conflict with U.S.C. home football games. Then the Broadway Series is scheduled, which can often require 18 to 48 months to coordinate based on the nature of the touring industry. And finally, the calendar is opened up to other organizations.
Each year, the Koger Center plays hosts to approximately 535 different events. Not all are public events. For each performance on stage, there is at least one rehearsal. During the school year, 14 music classes take place in the rehearsal rooms each week in addition to the public performances. “Although we are primarily known as the home to local performing arts groups and troupes, we also host such diversified events as The State of the State Address, The South Carolina Body Building Championships, Freshman Orientation and The Conductor’s Institute, to name a few,” says Chip.
A myriad of renowned artists have graced the stage of the Koger Center, including the Vienna Boys Choir, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Bolshoi Ballet, Hall and Oates, Dora the Explorer, The Shaolin Warriors, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Betty Buckley, Lord of the Dance, Tap Dogs, Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, Sandra Reaves Phillips, Sandy Duncan, Pilobus, Leslie Nielsen, Boys Choir of Harlem, Stomp, River Dance, Celtic Woman, Nickle Creek, Margaret Cho, Elie Wiesel, Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, James Taylor and, most recently, Joan Rivers. Musicals and plays have included Hairspray, Mamma Mia, Chicago, Les Misérables, CATS, My Fair Lady, Rent, Grease, Legally Blonde and The Color Purple.
Chip says that, historically, touring Broadway shows tend to draw the largest crowds, such as Mamma Mia and Fiddler on the Roof. The largest production ever produced at the Koger Center was Les Misérables, which is returning in March for an eight-day engagement as part of the Broadway Series. “Our local and university groups also pack the house with performances such as Columbia City Ballet’s Dracula and Off the Wall, Onto the Stage; Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green. These are very popular and are brought back for multiple seasons,” he says.
An annual philanthropic event enjoyed by ballet enthusiasts is Columbia Classical Ballet’s Life Chance Gala. This year’s gala benefits Harvest Hope Food Bank. “Another huge crowd-pleaser is Beethoven in Blue Jeans, performed by The South Carolina Philharmonic. And the annual Ballet Stars of New York by U.S.C.’s Department of Dance features performances that are consistently new and exciting,” explains Chip.
During the summer, when event usage goes down, maintenance and updates to the facility are performed. Over the past several years the center has replaced the carpet, updated the bathrooms on the orchestra, grand tier and balcony levels, painted the auditorium, replaced the lighting system in the lobby and auditorium with newer more energy efficient lighting, replaced the stage floor and opened a new box office on the Park Street side of the building.
“Although, there are four main auditoriums in Columbia that all serve a purpose for our community, the Koger Center is the center for the performing arts in Columbia,” Chip says. “We were designed and built to optimally accommodate most of the local groups and touring shows that perform in Columbia. Our acoustics are wonderful, and we are centrally located for both the university and the city. We bring the arts to Columbia.”
A decade in the making …
Colonial Life Arena, managed by Global Spectrum, is the largest arena in the state of South Carolina with 18,000 seats, and it is the 10th largest on-campus basketball facility in the nation. What sets Colonial Life Arena apart is its ability to do a variety of events, big and small. This one-of-a-kind facility features 41 suites, four Entertainment Suites and the Frank McGuire Club – a full-service hospitality room that has a capacity of 300. The state-of-the-art facility also features plush seating, a technologically advanced sound system, a four-sided video scoreboard and a unique selection of concession foods.
Global Spectrum’s General Manager Lexie Boone says, “We have setups for concerts that can range from 4,000 to 16,000 seats and expand up to 18,000 seats for basketball. We have a half-house curtain that shrinks the arena down, so it doesn’t feel like you’re in an 18,000 seat arena when you’re watching a 4,000 capacity show.” He says Colonial Life Arena can be anything to everyone. “Our first priority is obviously U.S.C athletics, but beyond that, the sky’s the limit.”
The University of South Carolina’s athletic department is the primary owner and operator of Colonial Life Arena, which was ranked 22nd in the world for total tickets sold in 2003 by Pollstar Magazine. More than half a million people visit the area each year, on average. “We have a great relationship with athletics. There is a clear view and understanding of the goals and direction of Colonial Life Arena, and there is a mutual support for each other. We also have a great local and corporate relationship with the university and the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management.”
“From an event booking standpoint,” he says, “we continue building relationships and using our company resources. The arena is a great place to watch live entertainment, and it’s in a great location. We provide a service to U.S.C. athletics as well as to artists, agents, managers, promoters and customers who buy tickets. And we try to be the best from top to bottom at providing that service to keep live entertainment coming to Columbia.”
The initial creation of the arena was a daunting $64 million project that was girded by a $44 million commitment from U.S.C. athletic department funds. The remaining money came from state-appropriated funds to the tune of $12.5 million, as well as $2.5 million each from Richland County, Lexington County and the City of Columbia. Norfolk & Southern donated the land to the university, and the athletics department is responsible for any annual operational shortfall, not taxpayers.
In 2002, the athletics department selected Global Spectrum, a leader in the facility management industry, to manage the arena. Locally, Lexie and his staff handle all of the booking, managing, marketing, event production and daily operational aspects that go along with keeping the arena in business. The arena sustains itself through naming rights, sponsorships and food and beverage sales, all of which are crucial since the arena receives no funding from the hospitality tax or any additional municipal, state or university entities.
Colonial Life Arena features concerts, commencements, free community and charity events, circuses, Motorcross, MonsterJam, and more. But Lexie avers that U.S.C. men’s and women’s basketball comes first. “We work closely with the staffs of both teams to avoid any conflicts. We have a couple events that we know we’re going to have every year that may conflict with their schedules, so we try to address those as soon as possible, and it works out.”
“As you might expect, the events that attract the most people generate the most amount of revenue. The more people we have coming to an event means more people who are likely to buy a soda and a hot dog,” Lexie says. Some definite crowd pleasers often return for future engagements. “Most of our family shows have multi-year agreements that get renewed each year, including Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice, Disney Live and Monster Jam. We also have a couple of religious events that we can count on hosting every year.”
Notable entertainers/attractions that have appeared at Colonial Life Arena include Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, The Eagles, Billy Joel, Kenny Chesney, Bette Midler, Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band, Yanni, Sesame Street Live, Elton John, Cher, Britney Spears, Toby Keith, George Strait, Prince, Aerosmith, Pearl Jam, Usher, Taylor Swift (sold out show), Zac Brown Band (sold out show), Red Hot Chili Peppers (sold out show), Jamie Foxx, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson and PBR Professional Bull-riding.
Lexie says that booking concerts is more difficult because they are less predictable. “You never really know who’s going to be the hot artist or have the hot album year after year. We just try to keep our ear to the ground and stay up to date on industry news.”
“One of our responsibilities is to produce good events, as well as a good mix of events for Columbia and the Midlands.
We also have to protect the artists and promoters. For instance, there may be a good country artist who would typically do really well in Columbia, but the timing and routing of his or her tour might coincide with two other similar artists within a few weeks of each other. There’s a chance they may cannibalize one another.” Lexie believes that it is incumbent upon his staff to share knowledge of similar event traffic or competing traffic in the area, which sometimes means that they lose out on a show or that it goes to a competing market. This sensitivity, awareness and savvy management is what has catapulted Colonial Life Arena to its status as a respected entertainment entity. “It’s about relationships,” reflects Lexie.
“The last thing we want is for a promoter or artist to come to our arena and leave with the slightest feeling of dissatisfaction with our management team. Otherwise they may not come back. Nobody wins in that situation.”
In addition to booking revenue enhancing events and in furthering relationships, the arena management endeavors to be a strong community partner by supporting charity events whenever possible. Full time staff are also involved on a local front, serving on charity boards and local associations.
Setups for concerts, shows and athletic events are now routine. According to Lexie, they have it down to a science. “We often have consecutive days with different types of events – such as a basketball game, a concert and then another basketball game – with no problems. One of our most challenging changeovers is when we go from MonsterJam, which uses 100 truckloads of dirt, on a Saturday night to a basketball game on Sunday afternoon. It’s all-hands-on-deck that Sunday morning when we have to clean every seat in the arena by hand.” Projects or repairs that take up a significant amount of time are usually scheduled during the summer months when there are lighter event demands.
“Colonial Life Arena has been host to some pretty good events the past 10 years,” Lexis says.” Our goal is to have a similar story to tell in another 10 years.”
For more information on events at the Koger Center for the Arts, visit www.koger.sc.edu,
www.scphilharmonic.com/theconcerts.aspx, www.music.sc.edu/ea/orchestra/schedule.html, www.broadwayincolumbia.com and facebook.com/KogerCenterfortheArts.