Since it re-opened four years ago under Bardavon ownership, after a $2 million investment, the Ulster Performing Arts Center has been injecting new life into Midtown. Its sold-out performances are bringing thousands of people to Kingston, boosting the local economy and introducing folks who otherwise would never have visited to the city’s charms. UPAC is proof that a well-run operation with excellent programming can thrive in the city—even in a struggling neighborhood.
Four years ago, the Poughkeepsie-based Bardavon took over the Ulster Performing Arts Center, transforming the dying vintage theater into a vibrant performing venue for top acts. UPAC has been a big success, its shows bringing thousands of people into Midtown, who patronize the city’s restaurants and gas stations. Each year just gets better and better, according to Chris Silva, who as executive director for the Bardavon also oversees UPAC. “Last year was an extraordinarily strong year. It generally takes three years to turn a business around, and I feel we have done that.”
At the same time, Silva said for the first time this past fall, there was a slight falloff in ticket sales, which he attributes to the lousy economy. “People are being more careful,” he said. Despite the general downward trend, some acts still sell out, regardless of ticket prices. Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, and Jackson Brown, for example, each sold out in a few days, despite ticket prices of $75 or more. “The higher priced tickets are often the first to go,” Silva said. And because UPAC has 600 more seats than the Bardavon—total capacity is 1,500 seats–“it’s the one place we can make money. UPAC has given us the ability to book huge names, which would be too expensive for the Bardavon.”
Silva said that the upcoming acts of Cyndi Lauper, Loretta Lynn, Ron White, and Garrison Keillor are all selling strongly—though the shows are still months away. UPAC has also presented such stellar names in the classical music world as Itzhak Pearlman and Yo-Yo Ma; he expects Ma to return in 2012. UPAC also features performances by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic (which the Bardavon also owns), and it does extensive children’s programming, which brings dozens of school groups from the surrounding area to Kingston.
Three years ago, after obtaining grant money from Assemblyman Kevin Cahill that funded a new projector and updating of its screen and sound system, UPAC began showing movies. Silva said the accounting firm of Kevin and Brian Ginty sponsor the films, and the Daily Freeman provides free advertising. The movie showings are starting to attract more people. People who arrive in a costume themed to the film get in free. “We had 40 zombies when we showed Night of the Living Dead,” Silva said. “It was a blast.” Commenting on the admission policy, Silva noted that “we like to see a little effort, although we’re pretty liberal.” One zombie who simply had an ax wedged in his head got in free. Coming up this month is Princess Bride, with pirates and princesses getting in free.
UPAC has also been showing live broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions (of the Bardavon’s 12 Met broadcasts this year, five were at UPAC.) The showings have been a big success. Tickets are a fraction of the cost of an orchestra-seat opera ticket–$23 to $16; the lower prices are for seniors and kids 16 and under. Silva said the broadcasts enable people to experience a top production at close range, plus go backstage with the singers between acts.
New this spring will be a program for seniors, Crazy about Patsy, presented in April, featuring a talented and witty impersonator of Patsy Kline (the show sold out last year at the Bardavon). Silva said UPAC will probably follow up with another senior-targeted show in the fall.
One challenge is the theater’s creaky ac and heating systems, which date from the 1920s. Because of the risk of an in-show breakdown—it’s happened a couple of times in four years—UPAC is closed during the hottest months of July and August. Repairing the broken-down system is expensive, with each fix costing approximately $21,000. Silva said he’s resigned to coping with the old system for now, since it would cost approximately $3 million to replace the aging infrastructure—an investment that would enable the theater to be open year round. However, Silva said the money simply isn’t available right now.
Silva said many local businesses support UPAC, including most of the financial institutions; Stewart’s and the Klock Foundation, which is based in Albany, have also donated generously. However, the lack of large, well-endowed foundations on this side of the river perhaps explains why the Bardavon got a new ac/heating systems, at a cost of $1 million, and UPAC hasn’t. The Dyson Foundation is the one of the few “that cross the river. We never could have taken over UPAC without its support.”