How Local Leaders Revived Wilmington's Arts Scene

The stories of Delaware Theatre Company turning itself around, the historic Playhouse remaking itself—again—and the decaying Queen Theater becoming one of the coolest music venues in the region.

Her majesty’s ascent

A key piece in Wilmington’s revitalization, World Cafe Live at The Queen—and founder Hal Real—celebrate its fifth anniversary. The city’s music scene may never be the same.

by Mike Bederka

In 2007, Hal Real—founder of West Philadelphia’s popular World Cafe Live—made a handshake agreement to create a similar music venue at The Queen, a long-dark movie theater in Wilmington.

Conversations with developers from the Buccini/Pollin Group, the city government, foundations and banks ensued. Then came the Great Recession. 

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“If I was a rational, hard-ass businessman, I would have said, ‘Folks, this is the wrong time. We’ll stick in Philly for now and see you when the economy improves,’” Real says. “But I knew that Wilmington had so many misfires, and people were cynical. They believed downtown was never going to come back.” 

The Queen, empty since 1959, had turned into a symbol of blight. Real wanted to make the venue a “beacon of hope” that would help to rejuvenate Market Street.

“I became emotionally charged,” Real says. “I always talk about leveraging the power of music to build community, and I said it’s now more important than ever to move forward with this project.”

Restoration of the 45,000-square-foot building, which dates to 1871, took 36 months and $25 million. The money was raised by the city government, the private sector, and philanthropic and arts communities.

Real describes the rehab simply: “What’s old is old, and what’s new is new.” Designers didn’t try to distress anything to make it appear worn or restore the stage to its original splendor. “We found her majesty like a hockey player with busted teeth,” he says. “People need to see what happens when you abandon a building. What we could save, we left looking old.”

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A host of new features was added, however. They include LED lighting and state-of-the-art acoustic paneling that would rival a symphony hall, which creates a rare juxtaposition of modern and timeworn in a music venue, Real says. 

On April 2, 2011, World Cafe Live at The Queen debuted, with Ingrid Michaelson as the first act. Jeff Flynn, director of economic development for the city, calls redevelopment of The Queen “a huge win.” 

“Not only did we save a historic Wilmington icon, but we added an outstanding arts and entertainment venue and another step forward for Wilmington’s revitalization,” Flynn says. “Renovating The Queen was nothing short of a financial and construction miracle. The city couldn’t be more grateful to Hal for seeing the vision of what we were trying to create and joining in and making a game-changing investment in Wilmington.”

Real, an energetic 63-year-old who lives in Rockland Mills, remains humble about his role. He focuses on the notion of a “community clubhouse” that has made World Cafe Live at The Queen, now celebrating its fifth anniversary, a success.

The building houses an eclectic mix of entertainment and private functions. In any given week, there will be a networking or corporate event, a wedding, a kids’ show, an up-and-coming local band in the small venue and a household name in the big theater, which fits 1,000 people.

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The Queen this year will host about 350 ticketed shows and 150 free ones, plus hundreds of events, from a small business lunch to a blowout bar mitzvah. Musicians who have hit the stage run the gamut, from Philly singer-songwriter Amos Lee to the ascendant Lake Street Dive to classic rocker Dave Mason of Traffic fame.

“What makes us unique is not only the broad range of what we present but it’s the way we present it,” Real says. 

The venue tailors the setup to match each artist. Jazz bassist Stanley Clarke got a nightclub atmosphere with black tablecloths and candlelight. Experimental pop band Animal Collective got a clear floor to allow lots of dancing.

Real struggles to name a few highlights from The Queen’s first five years—there are almost too many to count—but when pressed, he does relent. 

There was the time country artist Chris Stapleton performed in front of 300 people. “He has won just about every award he has been nominated for in the past 12 months,” says Real. “You will never see him with less than 5,000 people now.”

After ex-Yes frontman Jon Anderson did a solo acoustic show, he sought out Real to tell him it was one of the best rooms he has ever played. 

Real’s proudest moments, however, come during the annual Shine a Light fundraiser. The program supports the Light Up The Queen Foundation, which brings in thousands of schoolkids each year for music workshops and sessions. 

The Shine a Light concert attracts 60-plus musicians from the Brandywine Valley. Each song mixes up the band members. “It lifts the whole music community to work together,” he says.

Roger LaMay, general manager for radio station WXPN—a partner of World Cafe Live—says Real truly loves music and is inspired by those who make it.

“His great respect for both artists and audiences led him to build a clubhouse at The Queen where both can engage at a high level,” LaMay says. “It takes passion and commitment to take on a revitalization of this scale in downtown Wilmington. Nobody does something like this to make money. You do it to make a difference. Fortunately for Delaware, Hal has persevered and given Wilmington a gift that will keep on giving for years to come.”

In Bud Martin’s third season as executive director, DTC saw its highest revenue ever.  // Photo by Jim Graham

Plays for the people

After a few years of sketchy programming, Delaware Theatre Company has roared back with something for everyone—and the sales to prove it.

by Dawn E. Warden

When Bud Martin took over as executive director of Delaware Theatre Company in May 2012, he aspired to transform the fading institution into a sought-after destination for both theater-goers and performers. 

He really had no choice. That same month, DTC’s revenue dropped to an all-time low. Several years of diminishing audiences and productions of dubious appeal had come crashing down on the company, which seemed headed for disaster. 

The news is much brighter today. This past season, Martin’s third, saw its highest revenue ever, an achievement aided by shows such as “Diner,” which grossed $400,000.

That upward trajectory has earned Martin accolades, and it has won the theater opportunities to work with big, high-profile entities such as Warner Brother Theatrical to develop works that are headed for Broadway. “Diner” was fine tuned here—Sheryl Crow was still working on the musical score as “Diner” was being rehearsed at DTC.

“It’s exhilarating to be in a position, now, where we’re being suited by producers and not chasing them,” says Martin. “The more we raise the bar, however, the more I find myself saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope we don’t screw up.’”

The job came at a perfect time for Martin. The company he’d been working for prior to DTC was facing its own challenges, and they were depleting Martin’s creative juices. 

“Once I got clarity on where the theater stood financially and reputation-wise, I immediately felt this could be my new artistic home,” he says. “At the very least, it was certainly a better spot than where I’d been before.” 

His first two seasons weren’t a slam-dunk, of course. 

“There were very high expectations,” says Martin. “We were doing a litmus test, really, to gauge what genres of plays would appeal to the theater’s target audience.”

And of course, there was the money issue. 

“The resources weren’t matching the productions and caliber I was aiming for, or compatible with my goal of becoming a strong developmental theater, which would not only attract interest from producers, designers and actors of all star-power levels, but also create another income stream for the theater. 

“All of us here have an artistic responsibility to expose audiences to contemporary theater, but I don’t want to overdo it. I prefer showcasing a range of genres to appeal to a wider audience, from our summer campers and young playwrights to our older supporters.”

The decision to move away from “old chestnuts” in favor of “fresher, more exciting” performances has proved to be a good one so far. And Martin’s eye for successful shows is unerring. Last season, “Nureyev’s Eyes,” a play about the relationship between the famous ballet dancer and local painter Jamie Wyeth, was bound to get attention. Thanks in part to similarly savvy programming, attendance keeps growing, and by early summer there was already a buzz about the current season, which will open with “War of the Roses” on Sept. 14.

“It’s been great to see the community rally around us, and to have so much national attention. It’s a lot of pressure, but much more manageable and enjoyable than all that financial pressure I was feeling when I started. The fact that we were able to pull ‘Diner’ off, as technically challenging as it was, is a testament to our team and the commitment everyone here has had to become an integral part of the community’s arts and culture scene.”

Mark Fields (left) and Stephen Bailey of The Grand Opera House helped save Wilmington’s playhouse. // Photo by Jim Graham

A grand rebirth

Wilmington’s historic opera house has given the city’s historic playhouse a third act. It just might be the best part of the story. 

by Mike Bederka

Only now can the leadership team of The Grand Opera House joke about taking over operation of the historic DuPont Theatre in January 2015.

“With the worst over, we shake our heads and say, ‘What were we thinking?’” laughs Stephen Bailey, managing director of programming for The Grand. “Sure, we’ll just take over another theater. We’ll handle the added responsibility of running the oldest continuous Broadway series in America. Why not?”

Mark Fields, executive director for The Grand, echoes the thought. “It’s not exactly your first plan when you have one historic theater that needs a lot of care, effort and love to hold together that you want to get another one,” he says.

Initial worries soon faded, however, as they saw the potential—and higher purpose—of putting the two venues, which sit a couple blocks apart on Market Street, under one umbrella.

Rather than compete against each other, The Grand and the DuPont—now called The Playhouse at Rodney Square in a nod to its 10o-year history as The Playhouse—could coordinate their programming. In the past, The Grand’s packed schedule often precluded booking acts that wanted to plug Wilmington into their tour. 

“With another venue, we double our chances of being able to make it happen,” Fields says. “Now we get artists who we might have had to pass on before.”

Second, while the DuPont Co. should be commended for running the heralded venue and attracting star talent for a century, it became increasingly clear the company shouldn’t be in the theater business, Bailey says.

“They built one of the strongest Broadway series in a market of this size, but the company changed directions over the last eight to 10 years due to outside market pressures,” he says. “They weren’t able to have the same level of commitment and passion that they once had, which is fairly common in the corporate world today.”

Seeing the possible shuttering of the theater further inspired The Grand to pursue a deal.

“We didn’t want the loss of the DuPont Theatre for anyone,” Bailey says. “What would it say about Wilmington and the larger community? It didn’t make sense to our business to have another venue potentially close.”

Negotiations between The Grand and DuPont took about eight months. “It was an intricate agreement,” Fields says. “You have two very different entities. One is an international multibillion-dollar company. The other is a small local nonprofit arts organization. In many ways, part of it was learning each other’s language.” 

Once the agreement was made, The Grand team had to move quickly to keep the houselights on. Much of the staff stayed on board, including the veteran box office manager. It was a vital component in transitioning the ownership, though not everything ran smoothly.

Having taken over midseason, The Grand scrambled to book acts for the rest of the year. Tickets prices stayed a little higher than usual for a while. And the two theaters worked from different websites, databases and ticketing systems all the way up to this fall. The rebranding caused some confusion, so people would occasionally show up at the wrong venue. 

Yet off nights soon faded into memory, and The Grand has begun to take advantage of the opportunities it first saw years ago. Each venue has maintained a healthy audience, with an overlap of only 20 percent. The Grand is now looking for ways to cross-pollinate by offering special ticket packages and shaking up the usual schedule. 

Comedian Lewis Black, for instance, has sold out The Grand each of the eight times he has performed there over the past 10 years. Bailey and Fields wanted to see what would happen if he performed at the Playhouse. The result: another sellout.

“The Grand Lewis Black fans followed him up the street,” Bailey says, “and the core audience of the DuPont was introduced to The Grand experience taking place at The Playhouse.”

“The Grand Experience” takes on special meaning for the two longtime leaders. They both have worked at the venue for more than a decade.

In particular, they point to the “show corps,” the 200 ushers who contribute more than 20,000 volunteer hours a year. 

“They’re emotionally committed to both of these spaces,” Fields says. “They love it when a performance does great and take it personally when one doesn’t sell as well.”

The show corps’ enthusiasm, local theater veterans in charge and top acts—and more of them—have helped the new Playhouse meet an early goal: stop the erosion of subscription sales. In fact, they have even added about 100 new subscribers.

Last season ended with a limited run of the smash “Jersey Boys,” which sold an impressive 8,000 tickets over eight performances. (The Playhouse seats 1,252.)

“That tells us that people still will pay to come see Broadway in Wilmington,” Fields says. “It’s very encouraging. There’s the potential to rebuild the audience.”

The benefit extends beyond The Playhouse and The Grand gaining from these changes, he says.

“When there’s something going on at The Playhouse, The Grand and our friends down the street at World Cafe Live at The Queen, Market Street is electric,” Fields says. “There’s this energy in the air that everyone feels. People are walking around everywhere, and the restaurants are full. We’re pleased and proud to be part of it and excited to see what the next iteration of downtown Wilmington will be.” 

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