Destination: Entertainment

Officials hope Woodward Theater will be magnet for music fans around globe

The following article by Keith Lawerence was published by The Messenger-Inquirer

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When the new $15.3 million International Bluegrass Music Center opens at Second and Frederica streets this fall, its 450-seat Woodward Theater will have the busiest stage in town.

Chris Joslin, the center's executive director, says plans call for a live bluegrass show every Saturday night.

Four to six times a quarter -- and maybe more, he said, the bluegrass center will also bring in artists from other roots music genres -- blues, Irish, old-time country, gospel, fiddle tunes and more.

And the theater will also be showing movies -- classics, documentaries and children's movies mostly -- several times a year, Joslin said.

"We will use the theater as much as possible," he said. "We might simulcast other concerts. We could show movies like 'It's A Wonderful Life' and 'White Christmas' on the big screen."

The bluegrass center "is part of downtown development," Joslin said. "Conventions are looking for things for people to do while they're in town. We have something that no other city has. Hopefully, we'll be a difference maker in attracting conventions. We expect a lot of people will be discovering Owensboro."

"Having more entertainment options in Owensboro definitely drives more convention and local traffic downtown, which contributes to the success of us all," Blake Henry, general manager of the Owensboro Convention Center, said last week. "When trying to market the convention center, it will be helpful for our staff to be able to provide yet more reasons why Owensboro isn't just another place to hold a convention but truly a destination unto itself."

"What the new bluegrass center does for us is, it helps market Owensboro as a destination," said Dave Kirk, destination manager for the Owensboro-Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"When we go out to book conventions and conferences, we will have another great source of entertainment to help us sell Owensboro," he said. "With the shows the bluegrass center is planning for the weekends, that will also create events in themselves that people will come to Owensboro for. Add in that the new building is located within footsteps of great hotels, and you've got a recipe for success in terms of tourism."

Built for bluegrass

The theater on the east side of the center's ground floor "was built for this music," Joslin said of bluegrass.

"It has great acoustics," he said. "And it will have noise abatement, so traffic sounds won't be heard inside when we're taping shows or streaming in real time."

When Owensboro officials first announced plans for the center in the summer of 2010, Terry Woodward, longtime chairman of the museum board, said the board had long wanted a Bluegrass Opry -- a bluegrass version of the Grand Ole Opry.

The new center could make that happen, he said.

But Joslin said current plans don't call for that -- at least not at first.

"We haven't settled on a name for the Saturday night shows," he said. "We won't have members like the Opry to start with. It will be individually ticketed events."

Joslin said the center plans to have a "unique event each year to honor the inductees into the Hall of Fame."

He said, "We plan to have very unique shows, a lot of ticketed events with great artists. We want events that will compel bluegrass fans to make a pilgrimage from around the world to Owensboro."

The late Bill Monroe, who grew up in Ohio County, is considered "the father of bluegrass music."

"It's great that the music can be traced to Bill Monroe," Joslin said. "But we also want to explore the music he listened to -- gospel, fiddle tunes, Tin Pan Alley, early country. He integrated those sounds into bluegrass. We intend to celebrate all of it."

The museum's ROMP Fest each June "celebrates the roots and branches of bluegrass," he said. "And we want to continue that at Woodward Theater."

The idea is to keep local fans coming back several times a year and to draw other fans from the region, as well as from across the country and even from other countries, Joslin said.

"We want to drive tourism from all over the world," he said.

With the country music capital just two hours south of Owensboro, Joslin said he hopes to attract bluegrass fans coming or going to Nashville.

Outdoor shows in summer

The center is also designed for outdoor shows during the summer.

The outdoor stage will be on the northeast corner of the center, just behind the indoor stage.

What used to be the parking lot of the state office building, which was on that corner for 40 years, will be converted into a grassy area for outdoor seating for up to 1,500 people.

A small parking lot will remain on the west side near the Hampton Inn.

"We want to have events there that feel like ROMP," Joslin said. "It will have a fence around it, so we can have ticketed events. We want to bring the ROMP vibe downtown."

Both the indoor and outdoor stages will see a blend of up-and-coming artists, established stars, ROMP favorites -- like Rhiannon Gidden -- and area groups, he said.

"Unique experiences are the key to getting people to come to Owensboro," Joslin said. "This center sets us apart from other cities. Live music will be front and center."

He said when the new center opens -- the date hasn't been set yet -- it will have a celebration that lasts several days with a number of shows -- some of them free.

Last year, Joslin said, the bluegrass museum saw visitors from 46 states plus Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Australia and a few other countries.

The new bluegrass center should attract even more, he said.

In 2010, Woodward predicted that a new bluegrass center could draw 200,000 people a year -- if it were done right and the community put enough dollars into marketing.

Woodward began a push in 1985, when he was chairman of the old Owensboro-Daviess County Tourist Commission, to make Owensboro a center for bluegrass music.

The International Bluegrass Music Association moved here in 1986 and created Fan Fest and an awards show in Owensboro.

In 1992, the bluegrass museum opened on a part-time basis.

It wouldn't open on a full-time basis until a decade later -- after a $3 million grant from the state.

The IBMA moved its events out of Owensboro in 1997.

But Woodward said the museum can be more important on a long-term basis than the IBMA.

"We have to have more than a one-week-a-year festival," he said. "It's unlimited what we can do with a new facility."

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com