Sandler Center Turns 10

(Grammy Award-winner Bruce Hornsby clowns around for the camera with Sandler Center General Manager David Semon. Photo by Rachel Greenberg)

By Jeff Maisey

A decade ago Sandler Center for the Performing Arts debuted with a memorable concert by world renown cellist Itzhak Perlman.

The gorgeous interior design, comfortable seating, sightlines, and sound quality of the new venue in Virginia Beach Town Center was pleasing to everyone in the sold-out concert hall, including the very impressed performer.

“I’ve played a lot of concert halls,” Perlman told me backstage that night, “and the acoustics are as near to perfect as it gets.”

Perlman’s classical music performance marked the ideal beginning to a remarkable Great Performance Series featuring an eclectic mix of some of the best performers in showbiz. Among the 82 sell-outs were Tedeschi Trucks Band, B.B King, Kenny Rogers, and Loretta Lynn. The first capacity crowd was crooner Tony Bennett on December 14, 2007.

“Looking back at our opening season,” said Sandler Center General Manager David Semon, “I have such fond memories of the Tony Bennett performance.  He arrived solo after walking around Town Center and rang the buzzer to get into the loading dock.  When I heard him say “Hi, it’s Tony Bennett. I’m performing tonight” I literally jumped out of my seat and ran back to the dock to welcome him. A very humble gentleman.”

To date, Sandler Center has hosted 4,579 events ranging from lively musical theater from India’s Bollywood to the modern dance of Pilobolus, concerts by Todd Rundgren, John Hiatt and Art Garkfunkle. Everyone has a favorite memory.

“Chris Botti is always a fun show,” recalled Semon. “He’s been here 3 times and arrived late twice.  Once we had to hold doors because his flight from NY was cancelled and he drove down.  Harry Connick Jr was a major highlight.  He invited a patron up from the front row to jam with the band on percussion and the guy killed it!  So many people asked me if it was staged but honestly it wasn’t.  Another highlight was getting Willie Nelson off the bus at 8:20 for an 8PM curtain.  I was so relieved when he took the stage.  Blue Man Group was a massive production and a lot of fun but with so much gear I was frantic they were going to tear up the building.  I had the crew put packing blankets over everything to protect the building finishes (we didn’t ask for the blankets back).”

In addition to the major touring acts, several arts groups call Sandler Center home. These resident companies are Ballet Virginia International, Symphonicity, Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Tidewater Winds, Virginia Beach Chorale, Virginia Beach Forum, Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Musical Theatre, Governor’s School for the Arts and Virginia Beach Public Schools. In 10 years, they accounted for 1,424 events, and are a vital part of the venue’s mix.

“We understand that without the resident groups we wouldn’t thrive,” Semon said. “Each group is imbedded into the community and highlight the venue with each performance.  They are great advocates of the Sandler Center.  In turn, we take on as large or small of a role to ensure their success.  It might be box office assistance, production help or some other need that these mostly volunteer organizations need.  Keeping the costs down is vital to their success but it really comes down to selling tickets and we can help with marketing too.”

Additionally, Sandler Center offers free events like YNOT Wednesdays on its front, outdoor plaza during the warmer months of the year and hosts Paul Shugrue’s “Out of the Box” series in the small, Miller Hall space. Both feature local bands and are free to attend.

And for the next 10 years?

“We’re working now on the 2018-19 season now and it’s really trying to strike a balance of programming commercial, civic, cultural and community events often doing multiple events in a day,” said Semon.  “I always take ideas to the staff and ask how we can make it happen.  With adequate planning and preparation, you would be amazed by what can be accomplished.”

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