The Grand Plan

Steve Bailey sees his Grand Opera House as more than a performance venue. To him, it’s a cornerstone of urban revitalization. And if it takes a little rock ’n’ roll to make it happen, well then, rock on. 

Stephen Bailey is the man responsible for attracting top acts
such as The White Stripes to Wilmington in recent years.
Photograph by Thom Thompson


You have no idea how much I’m not coming to Wilmington,” Stephen Bailey told Ken Wesler in 2000. Bailey was a well-connected music promoter. Wesler, then executive director of The Grand Opera House, needed him to lure national acts to the city.

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Bailey was flattered, but the idea of chucking his comfortable, self-employed lifestyle in sunny Florida turned him off. Like many Floridians, Bailey conducted business poolside, after tennis, a nap and a nice seafood lunch.

Wesler persisted. He knew exactly which buttons to push. “Ken told me there was a renaissance going on in Wilmington,” Bailey says. “And he knew that revitalization and community engagement totally floated my boat.” Wesler’s offer of a six-figure salary didn’t hurt, either.

Bailey took the job as associate director of the Grand, Wesler’s second in command, on a yearly contractual basis. He never imagined that six years later, he’d replace Wesler.

Now executive director, Bailey has no time to swat tennis balls, but his schedule does guarantee one thing: Wilmington will rock. For the ’08 season, he’s booked k.d. Lang, Natalie Cole, George Winston and Savion Glover. And the city still hasn’t recovered from the Grand’s sold-out performance by The White Stripes in July.

There’s one problem: Bailey is now the No. 1 guy who says his strength is being “the No. 2 guy.” For the past several years, he happily booked big acts—Lyle Lovett, Cindi Lauper, Peter Frampton—while Wesler got the credit. Now Bailey is forced to do the two things he swore he’d never do: make presentations to the board and represent the Grand publicly. He fears that “no one is there anymore to take the backslaps.”

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Bailey will endure for one compelling reason: Convinced that Wilmington is embarking on its next frontier, he believes the Grand will play a major role. When the city finally pops, he thinks, people of every economic bracket will be served by his theater.

But in order to get a standing ovation, he has to escape the shelter of Wesler’s shadow and embrace the place he’s spent his entire career avoiding: the limelight.


Bailey is paying the price for taking a long weekend in Montana with his wife, Maryann. In two days he’s accumulated about 900 emails, and more keep popping up on two of his three computers. Today he’ll book Wilmington resident and blues-folk legend David Bromberg for next year and start building his 2009 line-up. He’s talking to B.B. King’s people. Steve Winwood, Smokey Robinson and Al Green are also possible acts.

Bailey is hyping a new Grand, “one that promises to be the most diverse and entertaining line-up in years.” The big names add marquee value, but he also wants to introduce new artists to new audiences. That’s why proven sellers like comic David Sedaris and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny are booked, yet unproven commodities such as Irish singer Mary Black and jazz trumpeter Chris Botti have a shot, too.

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Booking the Grand is as complicated as a Bromberg guitar lick. There are many generations of audience members to please, and survival for performing arts nonprofits means pleasing all audiences almost all the time. That explains why “Jackie Mason: The Ultimate Jew” plays one night and Queen Latifah plays the next.

Then there’s the MBNA-Bank of America situation. MBNA and its former CEO, Charles Cawley, were the blood flowing through the Grand’s veins. When Wesler saw the Bank of America buyout coming, he reconfigured internal systems, dumped a few positions and ended bonuses for remaining staff. When Bailey took over, the Grand was basically stable, but he hadn’t anticipated the after effect of the sale. “What happened later was the reduction of funding became way more precipitous than we imagined,” he says.

At its height, 60 percent of revenue came from ticket sales. Donations from MBNA, DuPont, AstraZeneca, Wilmington Trust and other corporations made up the rest. MBNA contributed the most. Few people understood that Cawley’s largesse kept the extras running, like the Grand’s music and dance schools and free children’s summer programming. It wasn’t unusual, then, for 17,000 kids to pop into the Grand over a seven-week span.

“Losing that [revenue] was the one-two punch,” Bailey says. So he hired respected arts marketer Mark Fields as his managing director. The pair implemented two substantial changes: a better subscription plan and a new community engagement department.

Bailey is hoping the community engagement department will turn things around. Fields considers it the most pragmatic way to build audiences. “People support an organization they can believe in,” Fields says. “And our deep commitment to the community obviously goes beyond what you see on stage.”

The effects have trickled down. The Grand School of Music is now called The Arts Academy to reflect a holistic approach and other subject matter. Outreach programs are expanding. Collaborations with local arts groups are underway. Whether all of that will make up for funding losses, no one can say yet. But if subscription numbers are any indication, it’s possible. As of September, subscriber renewal numbers hit 92 percent, beating the total for the previous season. And with the new plan, people can subscribe as late as April.

Like Bailey and Wesler, Bailey and Fields are as stylistically different as two people can be. Bailey is forthright, direct and, he says, “cowboyish.” Fields calls himself “deliberative and buttoned-down.” But philosophically, they’re agreed.

“The Grand belongs to the community,” Fields says. “Our job is to be caretakers of that public trust—highfalutin’ sounding, I know, but if people have a personal stake in the Grand, it just strengthens our viability in the community.”


For Bailey to be struck with the desire to serve the community, he first had to serve himself. He was born in Maine in 1955 to a family that hunted, farmed and loved music. He remembers his dad spinning Tex Ritter records and his mother sobbing the morning after Patsy Cline died in a plane crash.

Bailey loved music with every fiber of his being, but he couldn’t play for beans. After failing on the glockenspiel in his high school marching band, he lugged gear for garage bands, mixed sound and designed lights. “I loved music so much and it was so painful not to play,” he says, “but I had to be around it—kind of like I couldn’t get heroin so I settled for methadone.”

He skipped college and traveled the world. By age 26, he had already seen India, Africa, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran and Nepal. He returned to Maine, tired, at age 27. He quit music.

In 1985 he accepted a gig overseeing production at Raoul’s Nightclub in Portland, Maine, but ended up cultivating a national music scene, instead. He met artists like Warren Zevon and David Bromberg, who then hired Bailey as his tour manager. When Bromberg retired from the road, Bailey became program director at the State Theatre, also in Portland, which he ran until it closed in 1996. Armed with formidable contacts, he founded the Eastern Performing Arts Center Coalition in 1996. The coalition booked acts at East Coast venues that couldn’t otherwise draw big acts. One of Bailey’s clients was the Grand.

As business picked up, Bailey and his first wife grew apart. He blamed their divorce on the industry, so he quit music again.

He moved to Florida and drove a tour bus, mainly for elderly women en route to Disney World. “My biggest problem was how to avoid them kissing me as they were leaving,” Bailey says. “It was the happiest I’d ever been.”

Maryann Kukucka, a periodontal surgeon, lived across the street. She and Bailey fell in love and married. She convinced him to restart Eastern Performing Arts Center Coalition, which he did. Then Wesler called with a job offer. A year later, the Baileys moved to Delaware.

Bailey had reservations. Maryann had to sell her practice, and he wasn’t sure he had the stamina for the Grand. “Then (ex-board member and former UD president) David Roselle said to me, ‘You know, Steve, sometimes you’re just called to serve,’” Bailey says. “That was the real turning point for me.”


The reason Bailey chose Wilmington over Florida is still about music, but not the business of music. It’s how the music enriches the community, how important music is to Wilmington’s revitalization, how music feeds our souls.

Wesler didn’t reel Bailey in by letting him loose on stage to wail on an imaginary guitar. He took Bailey to the Riverfront, then a skeleton of what it is now. He introduced him to then-Mayor Jim Sills. They met developers and investors. “[Wesler] dragged me around for seven hours, and everybody seemed locked and loaded,” Bailey says. “They were taking this town by the bootstraps.”

Bailey is doing the same thing now, says Joseph DiPinto, director of the city’s Office of Economic Development.

“Steve understands that a lot more attention needs to be paid to every neighborhood, and people in the Highlands and Southbridge have got to be participants,” DiPinto says. “What he is doing with community engagement is reacquainting them not just to culture, but also to a city that belongs to them, too.”

Bailey says the Grand is an economic engine, an elevator of the quality of life, and an avenue for people who might otherwise feel exclusion or despair.

“I’m finding out, now that I’m sitting here,” he says, “that you can actually manipulate quite easily the level to which any organization like this elevates the community and serves as an education tool for our most important resource: children.”

Skeptics would say that’s easier said than done.

“Well, it isn’t easy,” Bailey says. “But somewhere along the line, there will be and should be a replacement for the level of commitment that Charlie and MBNA had. That’s our job as nonprofits, not to whine about it. To go out, re-create and reinvigorate the level of commitment in other people.”

The Grand’s development team will work hard to turn Bailey’s words into sponsorships. He isn’t suggesting that corporate Delaware stop funding shelters and halfway houses. “But I argue that we sometimes give, in just as dramatic a sense, salvation.”

Paul Weagraff, director of the Delaware Division of the Arts, says that without more benefactors, the Grand would have to restructure to seek alternative resources. “But I don’t think that’s where the Grand is headed,” Weagraff says. “Clearly, it is the premier arts center on

Market Street

and will add greatly to the revitalization.”

And it’s all in the hands of an ex-rocker who’s part anti-establishment, part company man. A guy who dines by candlelight with his wife every night, yet drag races in his spare time. It’s a metaphor for life. Bailey drives fast, but he’s never seriously wiped out.

While Bailey has the vision, Fields will make the marketing pitches. That means Bailey has devised a way to share the spotlight with his No. 2 guy. But even he accepts that when the music starts, he’ll have to come out tapping, alone.

“My worries continue to be, is Wilmington really ready for me? Are people in Delaware ready for me?” Bailey says. “Over and over again, much to my delight, it appears they are. So far.”

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