Last updated: Thursday November 10, 2011, 2:04 AM BY GEORGE WIRT, The Montclair Times
In a tough and hotly competitive music industry, concert venues often come and go like one-hit wonders. Montclair’s Wellmont Theatre hopes to buck that trend.
Despite a deep recession that has music fans holding on to their entertainment dollars, and restoration and modernization costs that went beyond anything its new owners originally envisioned, the Wellmont has completed three successful seasons and is about to embark on its fourth.
“Three years ago, a lot of music agents in the business had never heard of the Wellmont, and if they had, it was an old movie theater to them,” said Brian Harkenrider, the 37-year-old Florida native who was tapped earlier this year to serve as the Wellmont’s new manager.
“Fast forward two or three years later,” Harkenrider said proudly, “and the Wellmont’s on the tip of their tongues. They’re very familiar with us now.”
Rich Schaefer, a manager at The Artists Organization, whose clients include John Legend, Chris Cornell and Matisyahu, is happy to confirm Harkenrider’s assessment of the Wellmont.
“Since the Wellmont Theatre opened three years ago, almost all of our clients have played it,” Schaefer said. “It has the feel of a classic theater, yet with all of the modern amenities that artists want.” The turnaround for the Wellmont didn’t come easily.
“In the music business you have to prove yourself for a year or two, or even longer,” Harkenrider explained. “I think we’ve gotten to that point where we’ve proven ourselves. Now that our reputation is there, we’re getting many of the big names on a regular basis.”
Impressed by what they saw during their first appearances at the Wellmont in 2009 and 2010, performers and groups like B.B. King, Goo Goo Dolls, Ray Davies, From Good Homes and Chris Botti all made return appearances in 2011. The drawing power of those and other names has made it possible for the Wellmont to host between 75 and 80 events each season, attracting more than 100,000 fans who helped pump up Montclair’s economy by patronizing local restaurants, shops and parking facilities.
For Jeff Rosen, a member of the partnership that purchased the Wellmont several years ago and brought the grand old vaudeville house back from the brink, the theater’s resurgence validates their business model.
“This is what we expected to happen,” Rosen said as he watched an enthusiastic crowd file into the Wellmont for a recent concert. “It takes time to build a reputation. It takes public awareness, and it takes artist awareness. All those things build gradually.”
Rosen admits he is “pleasantly surprised” by the Wellmont’s “vibrant sales” this year given the economic conditions. “The diversity of the Wellmont shows that sold out recently were pretty incredible,” Rosen said. “You had Jackson Brown, you had Elvis Costello, you had Trey Anastasio and you had the Pixies.
“They’re all so different, completely different demographics. I think that’s a commentary on the demographics of the area,” he said, “The downtown here is getting nicer and nicer every day, and is improving more and more. We want to be a part of that.”