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Bruce Wheeler

INTERVIEW: Bruce Wheeler

Bruce Wheeler (Photo: Geoff Tischman)
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This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Bruce Wheeler, General Manager, The Capitol Theatre.

Bruce Wheeler is a glass-half-full kind of guy, and the past two years tested his character.

Yet, being a high-up, stand-up figure in the music industry for over 30 years, someone coming through management, labels, touring and site production work, Wheeler overnight adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic pinball with its swing periods of doubts, struggles, and eventual elation as artists returned to the stage of his beloved Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York.

As its GM since August 2019, Wheeler joyfully celebrated its grand re-opening last year with a string of shows by Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Billy Idol, Brian Wilson, Spoon, Steely Dan, Cheap Trick, Elvis Costello, Gary Clark Jr., and others.

During the shutdown of the 1,800-seat facility, Wheeler, with his highly flexible staff, and with cheerleading support from the venue’s owner, NYC-based concert promoter Peter Shapiro, and while the Cap was shuttered to paying shows, managed to continue to drive revenue, and brand growth in a multitude of ways.

This included streaming live and archival performances that created a new core corporate entity called, and with innovative and original planning, including the Family Tile program in which old lobby tiles were replaced by new ones purchased by fans.

Prior to joining the Capitol Theatre as director of production for two years, Wheeler had been general manager of Central Park SummerStage. He also spent many years working as an executive at record labels, and as a top-level independent production manager.

The Capitol Theatre, designed by noted architect Thomas Lamb,  opened in 1926 as a playhouse with great decorative beauty and luxurious comfort.

From the 1970s through to the 1990s, with periodic shutdowns, the Capitol Theatre hosted the major music and comedy acts of the time.

This has included Janis Joplin, Traffic, Pink Floyd, Johnny Winter, Rick Derringer, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Three Dog Night, the Talking Heads, the B-52s, the Grateful Dead, Rubén Blades, Parliament-Funkadelic, Phish, Blues Traveler. David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Spin Doctors, Ringo Starr, Joan Baez, Skrillex, Bonnie Raitt, Snoop Dogg, Kacey Musgraves, the Strokes, Tom Petty, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson, Katy Perry, and Flo-Rida.

Also, when there weren’t concerts, the venue was rented out for rehearsals. It was used for David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” tour in 1972. Alice Cooper did his “Billion Dollar Babies” tour set-up there in 1973, and Fleetwood Mac assembled its “Rumors” tour there in 1977.

In 1984, the Capitol Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In December 2011, Peter Shapiro announced that the Capitol Theatre would reopen with him at the helm, and the venue began a round of extensive renovations. Previously the owner of the legendary Wetlands Preserve in Manhattan and currently the owner of the Brooklyn Bowl chain, Shapiro reconfigured the Capitol Theatre with state-of-the-art lighting, sound and video systems, new carpeting, repainted walls, and upgraded bathrooms.

Part of the renovations included acquiring the adjacent Capitol Jewelers store, and converting it into a bar that is open to the public most nights when the theatre does not have an event. The bar, with the approval of the estate of the Garcia family, was named Garcia’s in honor of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia.

The Capitol Theatre reopened on September 4, 2012. Shapiro had a long-term lease on the Capitol Theatre which was owned by Marvin Ravikoff. In December 2012, Shapiro pushed in the final pin and purchased the theatre.

The Capitol Theatre reopened on September 4, 2012. Shapiro had a long-term lease on the Capitol Theatre which was owned by Marvin Ravikoff. In December 2012, Shapiro pushed in the final pin and purchased the theatre.

You met Peter Shapiro while you were general manager at Central Park SummerStage, and he was on the board there?

I did. Actually, the first time I met Pete was at Wetlands. I had a friend who used to like to go there. He had met Pete, and he introduced me to him very casually.

(In 1996, the 23-year-old Peter Shapiro purchased the Wetlands Preserve, a great vibey downtown Manhattan nightclub in the Tribeca neighborhood, and he turned it into a late-night paradise for jam bands, ska acts, and social activism. Wetlands, however, shuttered in 2001.

Wetlands, originally owned by Larry Bloch, was where groups like Pearl Jam, and Oasis played their first New York City gigs, and Dave Matthews was an early semi-regular. Bloch was a significant Grateful Dead fan.)

Wetlands was built by a Deadhead for Deadheads.

Exactly which in all honesty I am not. I have a definite appreciation for it (the following). I saw the Grateful Dead perform three or four times in the late ‘70s, and the early ‘80s when Jerry (Garcia) was still around. But they never really got their hooks into me. Great songs, and great performances, but I wasn’t a Deadhead.

Being a Deadhead was like a secret handshake for many jam band followers for years.

Exactly. Anyway, I first met Pete very briefly at Wetlands. I didn’t expect him to remember me. I was probably one of 50 people on any given night he met. Then when I was working at SummerStage—and I was there from 2012 to 2016—he was on the arts committee, and then on the full committee, and he would love to come to shows there. So we connected that way, and we talked about music. It was always great to see him.

Pete mentioned early on that he wanted you two to work together.

He would call me because he knew during the off-season, during the non-summer months, that I might be available. He’d say, “We are going to work together someday. We are going to do something together at some point.” I said, “Pete nothing would make me happier. That’s great.” I was really involved then in tour management and production management, mixing live sound kind of thing. He did call me a few times when I was out, or about to go out on tour, or had a commitment to a tour. “Oh Pete, I’m not available.” He’d say, “Alright, we’ll find something.” Then, when the director of production at the Cap left–he was moving on to a different job–Pete called, and said, “I’ve got something for you.” I was like, “Wow. This seems like a really good fit.”

That was October 2017.

I came in, and did a few weeks of overlap with the then-current director of production, and then came January, and I was official, and I did that until I moved over to the GM role in August of 2019.

As has been his manner for decades, Peter is a pugilistic ballroom master, and very, very hands-on. At the same time, he’s renowned for being incredibly loyal and supportive of his staff. Does he give you the space to evolve?

You know, he does. But you hit the nail on the head. He is very involved in every single aspect of the venue. Everything from the merchandise to the way that a particular email or advertisement looks; the way the room looks; the flow of the room; and he comments about it all of the time. He has seen everything (in his career), and he’s such a fan of the (live music) experience that more times than not he’s looking through the patron’s or the fan’s eye.

He gives me full autonomy to do what I feel is best, and my staff feels is best, for the room. If there’s something that he sees that we can do better, he is not shy about bringing it up. And I will tell you I appreciate that from an owner. I want them to give me the full skinny. We’ve had some conversations about some aspects of our operation which we immediately have taken a look at, and made adjustments on. But at the end of the day, he gives us enough space to have our own oxygen to operate. And, if there is something that he’s seeing that isn’t in line with his vision, as I said, he’s not shy about bringing it up, and offering suggestions on how to move it forward, and I think a lot of that informs how the Cap is what it is.

When you began as general manager, you previously had been the director of production for two years. So you had an insider’s idea of how the venue ran.

Yes, director of production. Pretty much running the shows, dealing with all of the production advance,  audio, lighting; and getting the acts in, unloaded, and set up. When Tom Bailey, who was the opening GM, was offered a job closer to where he wanted to be in California (as GM of the Peninsula Arts Guild in San Francisco) I started in that position in August, and that Spring pretty much the lights went out.

As the Cap’s new GM, you landed right in the middle of a nationwide live music shut down, and you closed down for 18 months.

Our last show was on March 8, 2020, and we went from a full slate of shows through the rest of 2020, and well into 2021, and that all went away literally in the blink of an eye. Then our furloughs began with a majority of our full-time staff, and all of our hourly staff being laid off.

So prior to the sudden shutdown, you had a full schedule of booked dates.

And then boom. One day we are in it, and then the next day literally, and I remember the day clearly, It was a Wednesday (March 8th, 2020). I had been looking at what was going on globally with COVID, and we were trying to walk that fine line between, “Okay, how do we deal with these three Phil Lesh shows coming up this weekend?” And keeping our staff, patrons, and, obviously, Phil, a cancer survivor and transplant survivor, a gentleman who was about to turn 80, how do we keep everybody safe? That Wednesday we decided with Pete’s consultation, and with Phil, that it was not a good idea to go forward with the shows. Phil was already on the East Coast, but we made the announcement on that Wednesday I believe or the Thursday because we feared that people were going to start getting on airplanes, and start traveling toward Port Chester because we have people in from all over the country, and also from all over the world, including from Asia, Australia, and from Europe and England. So we wanted to make sure that we didn’t burden people by making the announcement that was inevitable later than it should have been, and make sure they had the time to plan properly.

As live shows stopped, clubs, arenas, and concert halls grappled with survival; numerous booking agencies were blown apart; managers worked with stripped-down staffs, and layoffs and furloughs piled up, even affecting agents, and management that had viable, ticket-selling clients.

Everybody along that food chain.

Meanwhile, you and agents worked on rescheduling shows. Most everybody working from home while there was continual industry reports of live music coming back.

Then as clubs, and concert halls began grappling with shifting safety regulations and a backlog of rescheduled shows, venue owners, promoters, and agents alike kept a close eye on vaccination rates, and infection trends to see if they were allowed to be open with significant capacity

We returned to a changed live music industry landscape.

With scheduling and the rescheduling was it a bit crazy period? Conversations like “Bruce, these are firm dates, right?” Then you may  have responded, “Well, kind of.”

It was crazy. Essentially for March shows in 2020, like you said, we pulled the plug, and essentially it was the (New York) State saying, “You have to pull the plug, eventually.” My thought then at looking at the schedule was, “Okay, this might be a six to eight or ten-week interruption.” I think that we had a Michael Franti & Spearhead show, I want to say June 23rd, 2020, and I said to myself, “That’s the date that I think that we will be back.” This was in my head. I wasn’t really sharing that with anybody. “Okay, we are back for that.” Then we had some other shows that were affected in March, April, and May that were moved to, say August of 2020 or November of 2020. Frankie Valli and Sheryl Crow come to mind. So once we got into the second phase of what we thought was going to be the schedule of us coming back was no longer reasonable, we pretty well stopped doing the hopscotch rescheduling. We have Kirk Peterson in-house who is the booker (director of talent). We also have a relationship with Live Nation, and their bookers. They were pretty much told, “We are going to push ‘pause’ now until we have a much better idea of how this is going to fill out. Let’s not raise the hopes of either our staff or patrons or even the artists to think that, ‘Hey, we are going to have shows in October 2020 kind of thing.’”

Live Nation, like most promoters, was forced to lay off or furlough most of its regional representatives.

Yeah, yeah, they certainly did, and we furloughed a good 80% of our staff. I stayed on, and we had a person in our box office stay on, and we had a person in our marketing department stay on and, for awhile, we had a person in our accounting and finance department stay on.

How big of a staff were you working with?

We have about a dozen full-time staff, and about the same part-time staff, and then we have the show staff, security, bartenders, box office, and ushers. And what we did as we pared ourselves down, I kind of became a jack of all trades.

Meanwhile, you started streaming shows from the Cap that really paid off.  

Yes. One of the things that did come out of the pandemic time was with Dayglo (Ventures) which is Pete’s company. We had always done live streams at the Cap, and the Brooklyn Bowls, and with Pete running the Lockn’ Festival. So that element was always there. Pete and Jonathan Healey (senior VP, marketing and digital strategy) under Dayglo, realized that there was more business here to be had during this time. People were hungry for live music, and unfortunately, they were not able to go into a room, and see it with other people. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t put live music out there. So why don’t we up our game in respect of what we can do live stream-wise, and bring artists into different rooms?” So we did a couple of streams at the Cap with Billy Strings and JRAD (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead). Basically, put it out there to the world, and said, “Hey, it’s the next best thing” kind of thing. And Pete and Jonathan built a whole new arm of the Dayglo business with the company now called which is not only doing these live streams for the Cap, and the Bowls, but there are also third parties coming in, and asking them to deal with their live streams. Doing Bob Weir and the Wolf Bros down at Radio City recently. Doing a show out at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, and out in L.A. This has grown into a whole new division of Dayglo and has been very very successful. Again this is Pete seeing an opportunity and then figuring out a way to plug into it.

Streaming will almost certainly remain a component of the live music experience. After all, you can only have 1,800 people at the Cap, and if you stream a performance from there, you could potentially attract an audience of 100,000 or more.

Yep, thousands of people. Sometimes, obviously, bigger or smaller. Yeah, it definitely has formed a new aspect of the business, and like you said, with Jonathan and Pete were able to step up and, like I said, create a new level of that business, and a new revenue stream. It really helped (during the pandemic) to bridge the gap, when we had to deal with money coming through the box office.

The Cap showed considerable respect to its clientele in this period by accommodating those customers who needed to refund tickets for postponed or rescheduled shows.

When a show is canceled, then the refunds are relatively automatic. When a show is rescheduled or postponed, ticket holders are asked to hang onto their tickets because the show is eventually going to happen. We took on the task where we said, “If somebody reaches out to us for a refund, and it’s a real hardship thing like, ‘I’m not going to be able to pay my mortgage unless I get this few hundred dollars back that I spent with you on tickets,” then we were pretty accommodating of those people. There weren’t that many. It might have been a couple of dozen if you aggregate that with the thousands of tickets that we had out there, but we felt that we were in a position where we could do our best to help these people. Not really knowing what the long-term financial effect was going to be with respect to how long we were going to be shut down.

I have to say this is another real tribute to Pete Shapiro and his attitude, and his approach to business. That as much as he is a brilliant businessman, he is all about the patron experience and creating a great atmosphere around whatever he is doing. So that was part and parcel with the way that he directed us to work with our patrons on items like that. It feels really good to work with somebody like that.

The Capitol saw also an outpouring of love from the community with the Family Tile program which was one of the most imaginative ways to support the venue, while also managing to redo the entrance.

You had considered getting the old tiles in the lobby replaced by new ones prior to the pandemic. The trick was finding a window of a week with how busy the theater’s schedule was. The shutdown gave you that window, and it provided the Cap with a much-needed revenue source and kept a few staffers who were still working on board.

The fact that you pulled off the Family Tile program in COVID times, and the community responded so strongly was incredible.

Absolutely. It was great. It was something that we had talked about because we had some crappy tile slates in the entrance way, and they were starting to chip away. They had been there since the ‘70s and, maybe, even before. Nobody really knew. Pete took the building over in 2011. So it was always something on our radar, and it was, “When are we going have the time to put these down? It’s going to take a week to rip up all of the old tiles, and put the new tiles down.” I went to Pete, and I said, “This might be the time to do this, and it might be a revenue generator for us to build this bridge.” And this was before SVOG (The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program) and any of the government programs coming through. “Okay, we can generate some income.”

The response was very favorable.

Our patrons–I can’t say enough about our patrons—they embraced the program. There were patrons who bought multiple tiles (at $450 each). And we are about to put the second phase of tiles down. We are going to keep doing it until that entire area is filled up.  A little more than half of it, about 400 tiles out of the 700 or so that we could put down, are now down.  All the rest of them, we put down blank. What we will do now is that people will order tiles, and the mason will replace tiles with the names on them. I have a tile down, and my favorite show was my first at the Cap was when I was production manager in front of house for Regina Spektor, and it was the 12th or 13th show of the Peter Shapiro era. I remember walking in thinking, “This place really has it together for only being opening for a month.” And a few years later here I am.

The Capitol Theatre reopened for limited capacity in-person seating on Sept. 25, 2021, followed with shows by Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Billy Idol, Brian Wilson, Spoon, Steely Dan, Cheap Trick, Elvis Costello, and Gary Clark Jr.

The joy when some of these bands have been off the road for 18 months, and they come and finally play The Cap has been publicized. I am thinking of the recent three-night Disco Biscuits’ run from March 31st to April 2nd, 2022 (making up for a run originally slated in March 2020) where the band mixed familiar classics with newer songs, deep cuts, with something for every level of Biscuits fan to grab onto.

The second night— guitarist/vocalist Jon Gutwillig’s birthday—he’s 48–no less—the band went heavy on vintage Biscuits’ classics, starting off with a pairing of “Nughuffer” and “Spaga,” and later including “Aceetobee” and “Rock Candy” among newer fare like “Running Into the Night.”

That was three evenings. The Disco Biscuits are based in Philadelphia so there’s a real attraction to them here. They have always done well at the Cap. They are doing that kind of Trance Jam kind of thing that a lot of people really plug into, kind of losing themselves in the band. Yeah, so they came through, and they were just thrilled to be back onstage.

As the Disco Biscuits blogged, “Another epic run at the Rock Palace in the books — “Capped” off with a smokin’ hot, sold out, Saturday Night Special that dreams are made of,” wrote the band on Instagram. “This thing called Bisco can’t be made purely on stage – it requires all of you, the fans, just as much as it requires all of us up here.”

You have had a handful of shows that were rescheduled from the shutdown period plus new bookings for upcoming shows by Ann Wilson (July 27), and Steve Vai (Oct. 27).

Pretty much thinking back to September and October (2021) all of the shows that started happening once we reopened just seeing the look not only on the performer’s faces but on the faces of their crew of working again. “Doing what I do. I have been pretty much off for a year and a half.” I had a lot of friends that still work on the touring side, and some them were like, “I’m working at Home Depot for 16 bucks an hour because I have a mortgage to pay now.” There was no roadwork. There was nothing. Some of them might have gotten lucky with artists that were doing a bit of live streaming. But that was very few and far between.

Now not only seeing the artists and their crews coming in, but also for the Cap staff being able to say, “Oh my God, the people that I work so closely with, and that I love to death, now I am able to help them earn a living, and do the work that they love to do. And, ultimately, the patrons. People were just so happy to come back, even though they have had to show a vaccination card or a current negative test; they really appreciated that we were going out of our way to make them feel safe. And that was our thing. “Hey, once you are in the room, we want you to forget about all of the other stuff when you come to a musical performance.” It’s about appreciating the music, but it’s also about a bit of an escape. You are not dealing with your job or whatever.

So much live music in America today is by legacy acts. Recently you had the Beach Boys, John Fogerty, and Phil Lesh, and the Counting Crows are coming. Is it an older audience that comes to the Cap?

It is a pretty good mix. I’ll use a recent show with Bright Eyes as an example. Some people would put them in the emo category or something like Disco Biscuits. We do a lot of what you’d call legacy artists, as you said, whether it is (Bob) Dylan or John Fogerty, and you can even put Primus and Blues Traveler in that category. Counting Crows, we’ve got coming up (Aug. 2). Steely Dan (August 10, 12 & 13), and Ben Folds (Aug. 31). All of those, they are not Billie Eilish. They are not these acts that are getting to legal drinking age. But that said, we’ve had Billy Strings come through who is 29. Marcus King, the same thing. He’s 26. As far as our patrons, it’s a pretty good mix. On some of the more legacy acts, again Cheap Trick a perfect example, we have parents or grandparents bringing their kids, and their kids are loving it.

What I don’t see on the Cap’s calendar is hip-hop or country.

Well, we did have Brothers Osborne recently. I wouldn’t necessarily call them country. To pull a phrase from the ‘90s, they are more of an “y’all alternative” kind of thing. That was a very well-attended show. We have done the occasional hip-hop shows including with Snoop Dogg, and we had 3 Chambers (GZA, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon) on the schedule, but they canceled their own show. So we are looking into doing more of that.

Port Chester contains a more diverse, working-class population than many of its surrounding communities. The 2019 American Community Survey indicated there were 29,342 people living in Port Chester and 63.9%  were Hispanic or Latino, with the largest single group being Mexican Americans at 14.4%. Obviously, there’s been a population shift in the village in recent years, and it may contribute to future bookings.

Yes,  Port Chester is a very Latino-based community, and it is something that in speaking with our bookers we do want to look into, and potentially do more, and expand beyond the rock, pop, jam band genre that is really our bread and butter.

Also, we are looking at being a little more aggressive with comedy. We recently had Lewis Black come through. We have Brett McKenzie coming through (Oct. 20th).

We are looking to diversity a bit.

On December 11, 2015, Bo Burnham’s stand-up special Make Happy was filmed at the Capitol Theatre, and released on Netflix the following year.

But at the end of the day, it is also making sure that we are able to take care of the bread and butter. We set kind of a new standard with Phil Lesh last October in doing three consecutive weekends of three shows weekends for Phil. Fantastically successful. So we are doing that again this October. We are now doing three consecutive weekends of three show weekends for Phil (Oct. 14-16, 21-23, 28, 29 & 31) and that is very exciting for us. Like I said with that being our wheelhouse, and our bread and butter ,we want to make sure that we are able to do, what we know we are good at, and what we are known for, but still find days and times to consider branching out beyond that.

On November 3, 2013, The New York Times reported that Phil Lesh, longtime bass player of the Grateful Dead, would play 45 shows with Peter Shapiro of which 30 show would take place at the Capitol Theatre. Since Lesh’s “retirement” from touring in 2014, he has performed multiple residencies annually at the Capitol Theatre, and other venues owned by Shapiro.

We are arguably in a golden age of comedy with the popularity of Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, Bill Burr, Jeff Foxworthy Bill Engvall, Ron White, Larry the Cable Guy, Katt Williams, Dennis Miller, Whitney Cummings, Brett McKenzie, Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, Tiffany Haddish, Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan, Pete Davidson, Adam Carolla, Rita Rudner, Darrell Hammond, Denis Leary, Tim Allen, Paul Rodriguez, and even right-wing pundit Greg Gutfeld.

Comedy is a core feature on late night TV talk shows, podcasts, and the Netflix,, Disney+, HBO, Discovery, BET+, A&E Networks, Comedy Central,. Amazon, Hulu, and Fox channels.

Some of those comedians you mentioned have been to The Cap. (Comedy) is all over the place. Irreverent humor is really driving (the club business) these days.

Comedians turn up for shows with a microphone, and production is sparse.

Typically, it is an easier stage to produce, but it’s all relative. As much as we are in the concert business, we are also in the beverage business. With margins being as tight as they are, when we have a great night at the bar, obviously that helps our business, and that helps our bottom line. What we find when a band like the Disco Biscuits or Phil Lesh or Widespread Panic or with a band along those lines, their crowds tend to have a couple of drinks. Whereas, sometimes on the comedy shows, or even on some of the stuff that is not jam bandy, the bar tends to not have that strong of an evening. That’s okay. We know that going in, but again being in business, and really hoping to have as much transfer to our bottom line as we can, the type of shows that I’ve described that tend to drive a stronger beverage business are, of course, attractive to us.

A patron at a comedy show can sit and nurse a lemonade for two hours or more.

And that can kind of be it, you know.

I’m really kidding.

You kind of hit the nail on the head though. There’s nothing wrong with someone coming in, and having a glass of wine or a beer, or as you say a lemonade, and nursing it all night for a two-hour comedy show. When we get into the music side of things, they tend to be more of a 3, 4, or 5-hour experience so there is more opportunity there. There’s more people in the building, and no urgent need to leave the building, “Oh yeah, I’m going to have another beer,” or “I’ve already had a couple of beers and I’m driving tonight, I’ll switch to a soda or I’ll get a bottle of water or something.” Of course, it is still driving sales and revenue for the beverage side of the business. So it’s all important in finding a balance, and making sure that….the bottom line is whether it’s a teetotaling comedian, and a teetotaling crowd or it’s a heavy jam band crowd that is really interested in partying, we’re there basically to provide the four walls for them to be able to do that, and we feel that we do it really well

As some 77% of New York State residents have been vaccinated, mask mandates and vaccination checks have fallen in the state. Do you still mask in-house, and ask those attending some shows for vaccination cards?

Our masking requirement was for staff, and patrons were free to choose to do what made them most comfortable. With New York State easing off from (masking) we have pretty much have been following that protocol, and as far as requiring vaxx cards, and acquiring tests. We are managing this now on a show-by-show basis. Some shows were put up on sale, and patrons purchased tickets with the requirement in place, and we’re following through with that on those shows. Now that said, recently we had tickets on sales for Bright Eyes, and we had the Beach Boys which was one of our holdover shows from pre-pandemic, and we put those forward in that were going to check vaxx cards or negative tests for the people coming in.

For the Beach Boys, they still wanted vaxx to be the protocol for their show and we want that comfort level to be there because people are going to be elbow to elbow and it’s nice to know that the person sitting next to you has either been vaccinated or has shown a negative test while we are all breathing the same air.

The rest (of COVID prevention) on what’s happening backstage really boils down to the artist’s preference, as far as staff testing, and masks. That we are now on a case by case basis. It is really the artist’s preference.

Last September you made two key staff changes at the Cap. Emily Schmalholz, who joined the Cap in 2015, and had served as director of special events for the theater, as well as Garcia’s, was named as head of special events; and Lauren Northey was promoted to special events sales manager.

Lauren Northey, previously a part-time employee started with the Cap in 2012 as part of its Street Team, and she later joined the staff as an employee in 2018, working behind the bar, and working in multiple roles, from special events and pop-up merch boutiques to livestream benefits.

Lauren is a great example, as are a few others in our operation, of someone who started with us as a bartender. But she did have some event experience before she came to the Cap, and we recognized her aptitude, and her acumen, and went to her and said, “We think we have something for you.” We need to have a strong second person in respect to events. It took her awhile to figure out that is what she wanted to do, but I don’t know what we’d do without her now. She is just amazing.

Emily was also an event person prior to coming to the Cap.

When Emily came she was pretty much a full-born events person, and she grew in that role as the event opportunities grew at the Cap. Obviously, we are in the concert business, and I feel sorry for Emily sometimes because she can bring in some really great special events, private events, and corporate events, but unfortunately, sometimes there’s not an opening. Everybody wants to do a Friday or a Saturday night, especially around the holidays. And it’s tough because that’s our bread and butter as far as getting people out, and buying tickets for a show. She has been able to navigate that brilliantly, and she and her booking team are able to dovetail things and make things work.

The Cap and Pete are a big part of, “Let’s promote from within” and hire good smart people.” My philosophy and I would say this is Pete’s philosophy, is kind of the Richard Branson approach, “You take care of your employees, and your employees are happy to take care of your patrons.” I like to say to my staff, “I’m going to do my best to show you where the target is that I want you to try and hit every time. I am also going to give you the resources to hit the target every time.” So, if I am doing that as a GM or as the boss, and they are able to hit the target every time, then I feel good about that.

Now that we are almost back on track with live music in North America have booking agents been fair with their proposed fees for artists? Or have some taken the position, “Our acts were off for nearly two years. If you want them, it’s going to cost more?”

I haven’t really seen direct evidence of that. Agents are there to be advocates for their clients. That is what they are getting their percentage for. I haven’t heard of anybody trying to hold us over a barrel saying, “If you can’t do this,” or “I know my ask is unreasonable, but if you can’t meet my ask, then I am going somewhere else.”

Is there greater competition for premier acts?

You know, I’ll tell you, one of the things about the Capitol Theatre, and one of the things about the team; the amazing team of our people, and the people from Live Nation like Jason Miller (executive VP) and (senior VP) Steven Gaber.

I am amazed at how they do it sometimes.

The roster that I see coming through the Cap, it’s second to none. We are peripheral to New York City. We are 32 miles outside of the city, and we keep getting the caliber of acts that you see at places like The Beacon Theatre in New York, The Wiltern in L.A., The Chicago Theatre in Chicago, and the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. We are getting the A-level kind of stuff coming though, and that is a testament to a few things. Number one, Peter Shapiro’s direction and leadership, and relationships. Relationships, as you know in this business, are everything. The caliber of talent. I am very passionate about that, and I mention the relationships that not only Pete but also Kirk, Steven, and Jason have with the agents and managers that they deal with.

Pete is such a fanboy of music, and live performances.

To see him come into the theatre and…I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know when the guy sleeps. He’ll say, “I’m coming up tonight. Here’s the time that I will be there.” He has his booth in the theatre that he sits in every night. And just his enthusiasm for sitting there, and watching the music, is so inspiring to me.

Are you able to piggyback with the Brooklyn Bowls or vice versa?

There’s a little bit of that going on. I can’t think of an example off the top of my head.

But the option is there for you to do such a piggyback?

Oh absolutely. Again as that network grows bigger with the Bowl in Nashville, the Bowl in Vegas, and the Bowl in Philadelphia. So I guess there could be some cross-pollination and that comes down to Pete and Kirk Peterson who is dealing mostly on the Bowl side saying, “This act coming through would be great to play the Cap as well.” So there is some of that going on.

Since Peter took over the Capitol’s lighting and audio systems have been of the highest quality.

According to former Cap employee Dennis Bochichio, when Phillip Steinberg, purchased the Capitol Theatre in 1968, there were only border lights and footlights on the stage.

When concerts started in 1970, the original lighting truss was a window washer’s scaffold hung from the ceiling in front of the stage, along with added lighting along the sides, and on the border lights.

The house sound system was provided by Weissberg Sound Company. The early concerts didn’t have any electronic dimmer boards, the sound amplifiers were basically tube amplifiers, and there were no wireless mics or ear monitors.

Our in-house lighting system is second to none. I toured for 20 years and it is rare that you see an in-house lighting system the caliber that the Capitol Theatre has, and the flexibility that it has. Occasionally, we get big tours coming through that are almost underplays for the room, and they have 5 semi trucks. Two of them are holding their lighting rigs. They’ll say, “Oh, we don’t want to use your (in-house) lighting rigs.” We’ll say, “Okay, we will just pull our lighting rig up to the grid 60 few feet above the stage, and we are going to rig and hang yours underneath ours. Piece of cake. No problem.” So the flexibility that the room offers is a big part of the bookers being able to get that caliber of act.

Also, there’s our wall projections. Another very attractive aspect of the room that not a lot of other places have. It is well beyond an IMAF video system, and it can be everything from psychedelic images, and if we have cameras trained on the band we can put live pictures in real time on the wall. We can do logos. We can do pretty much of anything.

Capitol’s lighting and audio systems were always highly regarded, but during the pandemic you upgraded your wall projection system which “projection-mapped” on the theater’s walls, and ceiling in a way that’s similar to an IMAX presentation.

Many visiting artists have utilized this system which projects images, video, logos, and other types of art, during their performances.

It’s one of the things that has set the Cap apart, and you improved it and the lighting system.

There was some of that going on pre-pandemic The Cap was pretty well outfitted for stuff like that. We went from, maybe, a Chevrolet to a Cadillac. And the response to these things were amazing.

You upgraded the media servers, the show control devices that control and manipulate video, audio, lighting, and projection content.

It was not a cheap upgrade, but Pete felt that this was really important because it is such a key aspect, not only to the fan experience but also to what artists and tours were expecting when they come to the Cap.

Some acts don’t want the projection system on while they are onstage.

I remember hearing a comment by Neil Young saying “Oh, that’s really cool, but it would distract me. I would just be watching your wall.” So there are some acts that don’t want it, or they want the people to focus on what is happening on onstage. Thinking as a performer would, I can understand that. The show is up here, it’s not on the walls. But we are so jam band centric, and I will use Disco Biscuits as an example, that there are some artists that it (a show) is not just about looking at the stage, and the performers; that the aural experience, it’s about the entire show.

It’s like listening to someone like Mickey Hart talking about the live music experience. I heard an interview with him where he said, “Oh yeah, we get together, and we use the Joshua Light Show, and we create these happenings. The Grateful Dead playing their music. Well, that is what the happenings sounded like. That was the soundtrack to the happening. We weren’t the whole happening. But that was soundtrack. All of these other aspects, the drugs people were taking, and the visuals, and this and that; so it was all this all-encompassing kind of experience.” In essence, I think that what the Cap can deliver is a full extra sensory experience for anybody coming in.

Tell me about audio system at The Capitol. It is state of the art but it has had some modifications.

Our rig is from d&b Audio. The d&b Audio rig that we have is a great rig. We have done some updating on the processing side of it. The speakers themselves are fine. We have the line array (made up from discrete loudspeaker cabinets, the sub-woofers within the system). The way that it is set up, 10 different audio guys might come in and they would want to approach it 10 different ways. “Oh I wouldn’t put that speaker here, I would put it there“ or “I wouldn’t hang your subs, I would have them on the ground.” “Oh I wouldn’t have your subs on the ground I would fly them. I would hang them.” Everybody is going to have a different opinion about it.

Most people find the sound quality of a decent PA system acceptable. And the typical sound of a PA is often defined by a person’s expectations of what a PA should sound like.

Audio engineers themselves will argue amongst themselves what is a good, and what is a crap system.

What they like is the best, and what they don’t like is crap. d&b Audio is one of the top-tier companies out there. And you can name Meyer Sound too. There are other companies that pretty much operate at that level. To me, it really comes down to who is operating the system, and what their gain structure is. All of those kinds of things that equate from a singer and a microphone singing something or a mic against a guitar amp, or a mic against a drum, comes down to what you are doing in that gain structure to make it come out as clearly, and consistently as you can, once it comes out through the speakers. But, at the end of the day, we feel we have a very consistent system that any band will come in and have a good night on.

In the wake of the 2011 Indiana State Fair disaster with Sugarland, when heavy winds knocked a stage down and killed seven people, Jim Digby decided it was time to push for increased safety awareness in the music event business, and he spearheaded the creation of the Event Safety Alliance.

In 2014, ESA published the Event Safety Guide, a treatise to help industry professionals recognize safe workplace practices, heighten their appreciation for life safety, and make reasonable decisions in their daily work.

For too long in live music road crews were savvy tech people or friends of the band. It was Peter Rudge’s hiring as a tour manager by the Rolling Stones that provided the vanguard of rock touring as we now know it. He created the concept of a national touring with the Rolling Stones in the U.S., in 1972, and he was the first to seek out experienced union road crews by raiding IATSE personnel from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and from Disney On Ice Shows.

Yeah, “How do I do this? How do I do this well, and safely.”

Peter Rudge has also worked with the Who, Madness, Duran Duran, Ray Davies, Lynyrd Skynyrd, James, Il Divo, and Alfie Boe. He was honored with the Peter Grant Award by the Music Managers Forum’s (MMF) in 2016.

In some cities like Chicago decades ago, IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada) would try to shut down a show if a band tried to bring in non-union staging personnel.

Yeah. The development and the modification of the live music scene….when you think back to the Beatles. I was three months old when the Beatles landed at JFK (John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York). So I like to think I was around for Beatlemania. You look at even when they were playing the Finsbury Park Astoria in London (in 1963 and 1964) or going to play Carnegie Hall (1964), places that were set up for music, and then all of a sudden they were doing Shea Stadium (in New York, 1965 & 1966), Candlestick Park (in San Francisco, 1964 and 1965) ) and Comiskey Field (in Chicago 1965).

Never mind trying to get sound for that music because more times than not the microphones were projecting through the stadium’s speaker system.

The stadium live sound industry was, perhaps, born on August 15, 1965, at Shea Stadium when the Beatles tried without success to be heard over the screams of 55,600 fans. The stadium’s house PA system, usually used for announcements at New York Mets home games, was nowhere near powerful enough to drown out the crowd noise.

Oh yeah, they did their best to fill it (the stadium)  up, and you can see all of those long speakers around the bottom of the infield. But bottom line is that they were making it up as they were going.

You are right. Large concerts made use of whatever theater-style public address systems were available at the venue while bands traveled around with small, underpowered PA systems.

San Francisco-based Harry McCune Sound Service was tapped for the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. It was at this event that Shure microphones (the SM56) began to appear on festival stages.

Then you get to Woodstock (in 1969) with Bill Hanley putting his system together. Basically taking systems from much smaller spaces, and just trying to amplify them as far as the size of them. Try to cover these huge swaths of space.

The only things that didn’t fail at Woodstock were the sound system, the water supply, and the stage security.

Bill Hanley was then well established on the East Coast for his live sound engineering at the Newport Folk Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and Bill Graham’s concerts at the Fillmore East. He assembled the biggest sound system to date for Woodstock at his shop in Medford, Massachusetts.

In 2006, Hanley told Front of House magazine, “I built special speaker columns on the hills, and had 16 loudspeaker arrays in a square platform going up to the hill on 70-foot towers.”

The mics used on vocals, drums, percussion, guitar amps and acoustic guitars were modified Unisphere Model 565s.

In a 2019 Front of House article, Hanley further recalled, “We used about 20 Shure Unidyne microphones which were modified. I also used four modified Shure M67’s [microphone mixers] with input pads, two Shure M63 Audio Masters for EQ, an Altec 1567A tube mixer and four Teletronix LA2A tube limiters between the mixers and the power amplifiers. Below the stage, we had over 20 McIntosh MC3500 series 350-watt RMS high-fidelity tube amplifiers.”

Then people realized that there was an opportunity to grow the technology, and in the early ‘70s, a lot of that took off as you know. The bigger bands, like the Stones, and The Who, were out there trying to, number one, wanting to sound good, and number two, they didn’t want it (a system) to be so expensive that they’d have no money left at the end of the tour because they are spending all this money on production.

It is a really interesting timeline between the ‘70s and the ‘80s, and going with the pictures from things like Cal Jam II (California Jam II, a music festival held at the Ontario Motor Speedway on March 18, 1978) where there was 60 yards of equipment trying to cover sound for the 350,000 people that attended.

And now today, we get into line array (made up from discrete loudspeaker cabinets that  are more compact, and easier to handle with wide dispersion), the sub-woofers within the system. and computer modeling, and all those things that really make it so much more efficient in respect to being able to deliver consistent live sound

I remember when most bands went through the guitarist’s amp or bands traveled around with small, underpowered PA systems.

There you go.

I can also remember when bands had a stack of Marshall amps and speakers which pushed out a distinctive sound of clear high notes, aggressive midrange, and punchy bass.

You look back at photos at the Cap back in the ‘70s, and obviously, that was pre-wall of sound days, and you see how the instruments or the amplifiers were configured onstage; and basically, the drums were in the middle of the stage, and all of the guitars, and the amplifiers were behind the drummer trying to create this thrust of sound out to the audience. And they didn’t know a lot about where some frequencies were canceling other frequencies out, and about comb filtering (destructive phase interference), and all that kind of stuff that really had a negative effect on the sound.

Comb filtering occurs when certain frequencies are either amplified or attenuated by the superposition of a delayed version of the original audio signal onto itself.

Eventually, very smart people, like John Meyer (a legendary pioneer in the field of sound reinforcement) were out there trying to figure these things out. It is really amazing what has evolved, and it came out of the opportunity that here was an area that was undersourced. “What are the things that we are going to do that would improve the experience, and bring the costs down?” And that still continues today.

Where are you from?

I was born in northern New Jersey, and I grew up in Scotch Plains which is about 20 miles out of Manhattan. Played guitar, piano, and drums. Kind of a jack of all trades, and master of none kind of thing.

Did you attend John Scher’s shows at Meadowlands Arena?

Meadowlands and The Capitol Theatre in Passaic were pretty much my home base. The shows that I saw in that room were just phenomenal, whether it was Todd Rundgren, or Frank Zappa, or R.E.M. It was such a great venue. It wasn’t the most attractive place but once the lights went down, and the show started, who cares? It was such a great place to see artists that weren’t in an arena and weren’t’ in a stadium.

The Capitol Theatre closed in 1989 for various reasons, including the changing music industry, and the 1981 opening of Brendan Byrne Arena at the nearby Meadowlands Sports Complex. The Capitol Theatre building fell into further disrepair, and it was demolished in 1991.

I also attended shows at the Bryne Arena that became Continental Airlines Arena; and the big stadium shows with Journey, Ted Nugent, Frank Marino, and Mahogany Rush at Giant Stadium. And seeing the Dead at the (Madison Square) Garden or The Spectrum or going to clubs including the Court Tavern in New Brunswick. In my late 20s, I started doing live sound for bands. I had an aptitude for it. That is what sort of what that led to after being exhausted on the record label side where I just got tired of executives feeling that they were more important than the artists they were working with.

You have a fascinating background in the live music space in that you hold a certificate in rigging, and you have studied outdoor structures, truss rigging, and audio system design. You have a certificate in rigging?

I do. That was more of a classroom learning more about it thing. That was pretty much because each year at SummerStage we were building an aluminum structure roof over the stage, and we thought it would be very good for me to go and learn more about that so as to learn how to keep a good eye on it, to inform me in doing a better job.. Full disclosure, I was never up in the ceiling putting up rigging, and pulling points and doing all that kind of thing.

At SummerStage Central Park you were first the director?

When I started at SummerStage, I was the seasonal production manager. I was hired just to be the production manager for that season There were a great many who had been pretty much with SummerStage from the beginning including Howard Thies who was pretty much the technical director for SummerStage from the start.

Howard, unfortunately, passed away in January (2013) after my first season there. I was asked to come in for the full-time role in respect to technical and production. So I took that role, and then the woman who was the general manager for the venue the year after, decided to move on, and then I was offered and I accepted the role of general manager of the venue. So I did that for the last three years that I was there.

Lighting designer Howard Thies worked with SummerStage for 25 years beginning in lighting in 1987. Thies also led technical production for the City Parks Foundations for 13 years.

SummerStage is not only Central Park. It also goes borough to borough, sometimes simultaneously, and puts on different shows in (12) local parks. Central Park is pretty much the hub of the wheel or the jewel in the crown of the SummerStage experience. They were doing things in Betsy Head Park in Brooklyn, Queensbury Park in Queen, parks up in the Bronx, and even other parks in Manhattan, like the Marcus Garvey Park, and the East River Park. It wasn’t always confined to SummerStage, though all I really concentrated on was SummerStage in Central Park.

Earlier in your career, you held executive posts at MCA Records, J Records, and Caroline Records. And you spent years working as an independent production manager.

I recall you with MCA  in the mid-90s as a marketing director with Sammy Hager after MCA had acquired his former label, Geffen Records.  I think you were working his 1997 album “Marching to Mars.”

(Long laugh) Sam-mm-my.

Around that time (1996-1998) you’d also be working on campaigns for Fine Young Cannibals, and Aqua.

Fine Young Cannibals was one of my first projects there with a greatest hits package (“The Finest” in 1996). It was interesting seeing how that came together as opposed to a frontline album.

Weren’t you at Caroline Records as director of marketing earlier (1992-1993)?

Before Caroline, I was at Second Vision Management where I pretty well talked my way in an interview into—not really having a music industry job before—they took a leap in faith with me. They were doing North American management of bands like Depeche Mode, and Psychedelic Furs. Being conduit to the record labels in North America, Bruce Kirkland went on to run Capitol Records. Second Vision Management was a concept that companies like Q Prime and Red Light Management work with now. Where we aren’t just managing the act, but we are also being active on our own with promotion and marketing. as well as dovetailing in our efforts with what is going on at the record label.

After heading up Stiff Record’s operation in New York, Bruce Kirkland founded Second Vision Management from Stiff’s former offices in Soho. Second Vision carved out a unique business niche by providing US-based management and marketing services to foreign-domiciled artists, and London-based Mute records,  and Berlin-based Noise Records.

Eventually, a staff of 15 presided over a roster that included Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Primal Scream, The The, Kraftwerk, Psychedelic Furs, Sugarcubes, Electronic, and Swing Out Sister.

Kirkland eventually became the first president/CEO of EMI-Capitol Entertainment Properties, and he has been running Tsunami Entertainment since 1997.

You went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York before venturing into the music business.

Which they say is like an MBA with knives. It was the most intense experience I ever went through in my life. It was intense. It was a serious thing If you wanted to graduate, and you if you wanted decent grades and be success. After that, I took courses in rigging and structure, and then entertainment marketing at NYU (New York University).

You worked as an operations manager at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square (2004-2006); at MLB Advanced Media (2006-2007) in New York as a senior manager; and as sales and training specialist at Apple in Wayne New Jersey.

Well those were the times that I was trying to get myself off the road. I got tired of not seeing my friends.

Who were you on the road with?

I started off with a band called the Murmurs, and worked with Keanu Reeves’ band Dogstar for awhile. I tour managed Bruce Hornsby. I did tour management, production management, and front of house sound for Cage the Elephant for a couple of years. I worked with Rufus Wainwright for a couple of years. I worked with Regina Spektor on and off for a couple of years.

Hard Rock Cafe came after me before they moved from 57th Street down to Times Square because they liked someone with culinary experience, and who also had rock and roll experience–show experience–because the space they had in Times Square had a stage, and a performance space. They realized, however, very quickly that they would have to shut that area down in order to load a van in, set up equipment,  and do a sound check. They weren’t willing to make the tradeoff on the restaurant business versus the ticketing and the show business. Unfortunately, the shows that they had thought they were going to be able to do never materialized.

Working at Apple?

The thing with Apple was I was burnt from being on the road, and Apple recruited me to help them train new hires on the retail side. Then, when the recession happened in 2008, they were in a hiring freeze, and I got a call from Cage the Elephant that I thought I’d take, and I was with them for over two years (2009 to 2011). I hitched myself to their wagon, and rode the rocket with them, from being third on the bill to being headliners.

Tell me about your three years at the digital media entertainment company ARTISTdirect (1998-2001) where you developed and implemented strategies for Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Dave Matthews Band, and other top acts

I pretty much opened up a very small ARTISTdirect New York office. In my opinion, Marc Geiger had an amazing vision for this, but It was just 5 years too early. The bandwidth wasn’t there with the internet goes. Back then, it took five minutes to download one song. Not too many years afterward it took one minute to download five songs. ARTISTdirect was a great concept, but as I said, the infrastructure wasn’t there for that to be as successful as we hoped it would be.

ARTISTdirect was the first of the 360 companies, and was the first site to focus on independent and unsigned bands,

Yep, for sure, and grew out of the Ultimate Band List, an online database where people could put information about the band’s business.

At its peak, it held information on over 600,000 artists, concerts, record labels, and other music-related resources.

And, in dealing with Tom Corson ( executive VP of worldwide marketing at J Records), I got some calls, when ARTISTdirect went away, saying Clive (Davis) had started up J Records,  asking if I’d be interested in coming in, and helping to get the label off the ground. It was really more of a marketing consulting kind of thing for a year. But it was a lot of fun. I’ll tell you there’s something about sitting in a meeting with Clive Davis, just the aura, just the air is so rich with knowledge. It really was an amazing time. It was a very peripheral thing for me, but it was very exciting. It really helped give me some increased perspective on how the music business was run

Here it is 30 years later and you remain embedded in the music industry, and working at a top level.

I thought the music industry jobs were the jobs that the pop people got. A guy like me. I’m not going to get a job in the music industry. What, am I crazy? Then I just found that I had an aptitude and a passion for it. As I was able to get several opportunities, and then create relationships, and network to create even more opportunities for myself, I just fell in love with it.

Mind you, the touring side of it can really be a grind.

Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.

He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.

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