Buffed and polished, EKU arts center prepares for its big opening

Wynonna comes back to Richmond to help open $30 million venue

rcopley@herald-leader.comSeptember 24, 2011 

  • If You Go

    Wynonna Judd

    When: 8 p.m. Sept. 24

    Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave., Richmond

    Tickets: $45-$75; available at the center box office, or call 1-855-358-7469

    Online: EKUcenter.com

RICHMOND — If you burrow into the new $30 million-plus Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts, you can find evidence that everything isn't quite done.

Director Debra Hoskins and her staff are working from folding tables in the office complex, protective sheets of plastic are on fixtures in the dressing rooms, and painters are applying more coats to surfaces that already look thoroughly painted.

But walk through the front door, and all you see is an enormous work of art by Arturo Sandoval; smooth, clean carpeting; and vast expanses of lobby awaiting patrons.

And Saturday night, the patrons will arrive for the first-ever ticketed concert at the EKU Center by country music superstar and onetime Richmond resident Wynonna Judd.

As is recounted in several family memoirs, Judd's years in Richmond were modest times for her and her sister, Ashley, while their mother, Naomi, studied nursing at EKU. A chart-topping career with her mother as the Judds and now as a successful solo artist set the stage for her to return and inaugurate EKU's new stage with its first official concert.

Patrons will be greeted by venue with a main theater that seats 2,100 people, Central Kentucky's largest non-arena performing-arts space.

It has had a couple "soft-opening" events, as Hoskins referred to them: a campus event Thursday night, and before that, a primarily invitation-only event Sept. 9 featuring the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, with a guest list that included Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler.

"You do those sort of events to see how things run and get the bugs out," says Hoskins, who discovered some "bugs."

That was particularly the case at the Sept. 9 event. She says the staff was taken by surprise by a larger-than-expected walk-up crowd that responded to a last-minute decision to open the event to the public. That led to a long line that clogged the center's main lobby and delayed the performance by an hour.

Hoskins says ticketing should not be a problem Saturday night because most of the tickets were sold in advance — the show was 85 percent sold as of midday Friday, she said — and ticketing equipment is in the box office this time, whereas everything was being done by hand at the Sept. 9 performance.

Patrons who have tickets at the will-call window will go to the right when they enter the front of the theater and, after receiving tickets, be directed to the level where their seats are. Hoskins notes that there is bar service on each level, so people who want drinks will not throng the lower levels.

In the theater, Hoskins said, all seating is angled toward the stage, and it is laid out in a staggered configuration so that no one should be stuck looking at the back of the head of the person in front of them.

Judd's show does not come with exceptional bells and whistles, but the theater itself is designed to be able to accommodate the largest of Broadway touring productions.

Hoskins says it was built to specifications of Miss Saigon, which includes a helicopter in one scene. "We could get the helicopter in here," Hoskins says. She is looking at other shows for future seasons, including Wicked, which is too large to have been presented at the Lexington Opera House or other area venues.

The EKU Center is awaiting word on whether it will be selected to host one of the 2012 presidential debates. Hoskins says that scouts for the debate commission looked favorably on the spaciousness of the center's backstage area, which would easily be able to accommodate security for the candidates.

But those are future concerns. The focus for this weekend is getting the center open and its inaugural season going. Online ticket sales, which had previously been unavailable, will be live as of Monday, Hoskins said.

And even in the main places that patrons will see, there will continue to be changes, including permanent bars being built and the installation of a sound system that is en route to Richmond but that Hoskins hopes to have in place by the Peter Frampton concert on Oct. 4. (Wynonna will use her own system, augmented by a company hired out of Louisville.)

For the most part, though, the seats are bolted in, the paint is on the walls and the lights are in place. It's showtime at EKU.

Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/richcopleyhl.

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