Greensburg's Palace Theatre plans pre-Oscars gala, fundraiser

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The Westmoreland Cultural Trust’s annual Hollywood Party at The Palace Theatre in Greensburg is just around the corner, Feb.22, and the trust has good reason to celebrate.

The Palace, which the trust restored and runs, is finding continued success in bringing national touring groups to the city.

In 2013, The Palace Theatre had 98 shows and 54 were national touring groups, said Mike Langer, the trust’s CEO.

“We had 65,000 people who attended events last year,” he said. "That’s about 10 percent more than the previous year."

Artists Cyndi Lauper, Blue Man Group, Pat Benetar and Amy Grant all performed at the 1,350-seat theater in 2013.

And it’s not just county residents who come to the theater on West Otterman, near the courthouse.

“We draw from every state in the country for the traveling shows,” Mr. Langer said. “Six percent of our audience comes from out of state.

"We have a fairly aggressive advertising campaign, and we work with the Laurel Highlands Visitor Center, and we draw people from the D.C. area, and east Ohio, West  Virginia and Maryland.”

Each performer or band has its own following, of course, and does its own advertising. So fans eager to see a favorite artist may decide it’s easier to come to Greensburg than travel to Cleveland or Philadelphia.

“I remember seeing a cab pull up at one of our shows, so I talked to the woman who got out,” said Mr. Langer. "She lived in Fort Lauderdale, and decided Greensburg was the cheapest place to see the group. She took Spirit Airlines to the (Arnold Palmer Regional Airport near Latrobe), and stayed in a hotel along Route 30."

Patrons and the artists both like the small theater atmosphere, he said.

“More than half the time, performers will talk about the intimacy of these old-time theaters, and their quaintness,” Mr Langer said. "It’s very appealing to these artists. We have retained the Grecian column architecture, and the opera boxes."

The biggest draws are country singers, comedy groups and rock bands, he said.

On the 2014 schedule are: The American Led Zeppelin, STOMP, Gaelic Storm, Jefferson Starship, Ronnie Milsap and America.

The theater is also home to Stage Right, a local teen musical group that puts on educational performances, and the Westmoreland Symphony and the River City Brass Band.

But increased attendance doesn’t mean The Palace breaks even.

It’s expensive to put on live entertainment.

“At the end of the year, we have fixed costs, such as utilities and labor costs,” Mr. Langer said.

The theater has an annual operating budget of $1.3 million. That includes full-time staff for lighting and sound, but each performing group operates differently, some bring their own setup people, while the theater can hire locals to set up, as well.

The dilapidated theater was on the verge of being torn down when the cultural trust bought it in 1992, and put about $10 million into updating the seating, electrical wiring and admissions areas, and added a side court for outdoor seating.

The cultural trust holds several big fundraisers a year to subsidize the theater's operations.

“Our goal is to provide good entertainment and economic development to the area,” said Mr. Langer.

“As a nonprofit, we are dedicated to cultural entertainment and economic development, and we’re willing to do this because it provides $7.1 million back to the county,” Mr. Langer said.

That figure comes from a study done several years ago by a Pittsburgh consultant, who analyzed the dollars spent on hotels and restaurants in the area by theater patrons.

Restaurants in the downtown area are some of the biggest winners.

“We have a couple of restaurants that call us for our schedule so they can add staff those nights we have performances,” Mr. Langer said.

The Supper Club, in the historic Greensburg train station one block away, and J. Corks, on East Pittsburgh Street, are the two most popular restaurants with theater patrons, he said.

An employee at J. Corks said the restaurant gets a lot of business from the theater.

Susan Trout, Greensburg City administrator, says the Palace is an asset to the city.

Ms. Trout said the 10 percent increase in theater attendance in 2013 was “outstanding.”

“The shows the theater brings in are part of the economic vitality of the city,” she said. “They bring people downtown to eat and shop prior to the shows and after the shows. The whole community benefits — the restaurants see a surge, the bars see a surge, it is lively — all that activity is appreciated.”

Both Mr. Langer and Ms. Trout said the success of the theater was one of the main reasons that Seton Hill University decided to build a new $21 million performing arts center next to the theater about four years ago.

The city owns a parking garage about a half block from the theater on West Otterman, and has provided free parking for many of the events, although Ms. Trout said the city may start to charge this year.

The city benefits financially from the Palace’s success as local businesses benefit. The city gets added tax revenue from a mercantile tax on gross sales, and gets added tax revenue from those business employees — either in earned income tax if they are city residents or from the local services tax from commuters.

“We like the buzz from the theater,” Ms. Trout said. “People come to the city and see the cool shops or go to our great restaurants, or see a new coffee shop or boutique, and then they come back.”

The trust's Hollywood Party at the Palace is its most popular fundraiser — people get dressed up in tuxedos and gowns and walk the red carpet just as the actors do at the Academy Awards show.

This year’s theme will celebrate the history and success of the theater. Between 225 to 250 people are expected to attend. Local television and film producer and documentarial Rick Sebak will be master of ceremonies. It is being held Feb. 22, a week before the March 2 Academy Awards show. Tickets are $125 for the pre-party for the black-tie-optional event and $75 for the event only.

The trust’s other major fundraisers include an annual bocce tournament, a fashion show and Thank Goodness It’s Summer events, all at the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center.

The trust also owns the train station, the Union Trust Building, the Stark/James Building and manages the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center for the city.

The train station is 100 percent occupied, Mr. Langer said, and “is doing very well.”

“Amtrak has about 13,000 people a year who use the station,” he said. “We put 3 million into restoring the 1911 station. And we also lease office space to a state lawmaker and other businesses."

The trust bought the Union Trust Building on Main Street in 2004 and renovated it. It has housed 24 start-up businesses during that time, and also is home to law offices, as well as the trust administrative offices. The trust purchased the Stark/James Building on West Otterman Street in 2004 and spent $3.5 million restoring the 1896 former hotel into offices. The building is 100 percent occupied, Mr. Langer said.

The trust has a total of 13 employees who manage the theater and civic center events and its properties.


Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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