Here's how one Des Moines venue is having its best year in two decades
Hoyt Sherman Place executive director Robert Warren has headed up a resurgence of the venue, becoming a favorite spot amongst traveling musicians.
The front doors to Hoyt Sherman Place are open on a flawless May evening as ripping guitar riffs flow through the early 20th century foyer, pouring into the neighborhood and onward to downtown.
Inside the venue where Amelia Earhart once spoke, classic rock radio favorite Styx just wrapped “Man in the Wilderness,” one of many numbers performed at the two-plus hour, sold out show in Des Moines’ Sherman Hill neighborhood. It was the group’s first show at Hoyt Sherman Place and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan paused after the song to reflect on the curved walls and vaudevillian architecture.
“I love playing in a place like this,” he exclaimed. “There are spirits in the room that are totally rockin’ out with us. I can feel it. I can feel it.”
Styx's May 3 performance marked the seventh event in as many days for the venue and the 13th of 14 gigs to hit at least 95 percent capacity in 2017. A regular feat of late for the venue, it represents an unexpected turnaround from a room that first opened its doors decades before Lennon and McCartney charmed America on the "Ed Sullivan Show."
For Hoyt Sherman Place, it wasn’t always night after night of sold out shows and endless compliments from entertainment’s premier touring acts (earlier this year Lyle Lovett penned a 200-word love letter to the venue on Instagram). In the two decades prior to 2017, the nonprofit venue, opened by the Des Moines Women’s Club in 1923, lost money every year. The bleeding was so bad in 2005, after a multimillion dollar renovation to the theater, the losses totaled $325,000.
That was until Robert Warren, a Midwesterner who spent a decade as an associate producer at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., became executive director in October 2015. He decided to jump head-first into booking bigger shows while simultaneously building the reputation of the 1,252-capacity room, breaking a tradition of conservative programming that infrequently brought in top-tier talent.
For the first time in 21 years, Warren said, Hoyt Sherman Place expects to finish fiscal year 2017 with a profit. The venue reached its fiscal year goal of $261,500 at the end of March. When paired with additional profit from April, May and June, plus the roughly $182,000 of untouched endowment interest, the venue expects its fiscal year finances to be in the black by $462,000.
The profit is to be reinvested into the organization’s $3.5 million endowment, which aims to maintain the building's longevity in Des Moines.
“The bottom line was to not sacrifice on the art,” Warren said. “(We want to) bring in good talent ... and market it well, and make the audience feel like it’s a great experience, and (Hoyt Sherman) will continue to exceed itself.”
Des Moines singer-songwriter Max Jury makes his Hoyt Sherman debut in a private show for Juice Sides Sessions. Hear his song, "Ella's Moonshine," off his self-titled debut album.
For music fans, this means seeing big names in Des Moines that have passed over Iowa’s capital city in recent years. Since 2011, the number of ticketed events at Hoyt Sherman Place has increased by 49 percent, from 45 to 67 in 2016. After Warren joined in 2015, the number of shows jumped by 16.
More shows equals more tickets sold. Show-goers purchased 49,506 tickets to Hoyt Sherman events in 2016, up from 29,332 in 2011.
Noteworthy appearances at the venue since 2016 include comedian Dave Chapelle, and musicians Kacey Musgraves, Elvis Costello, Sturgill Simpson and Ben Folds. Sam Summers, owner of Des Moines-based concert promotion group First Fleet Productions, said the uptick in programming is an industry anomaly.
"I can’t think of any sort of (similar boom) other then a brand new venue opening," Summers said. "It’s very rare you’ll see a room go from not doing a ton of shows to doing a ton more."
The business of good concerts
When Warren first took over in 2015, he said the venue would spend around $20,000 on talent per concert, for acts such as pianist Jim McDonough and songwriter Richard Thompson, and hope to fill enough seats to break even. Now, for Warren and booking manager Allison Fegley, it’s customary for the venue to book acts that cost twice as much or more, such as Martina McBride, Styx and Kansas.
“We’re just taking more risks,” Warren said. “(We’re) going after bigger artists and (doing) everything that we can to diversify.”
A cornerstone in expanded programming came when Warren and his 10-person staff parted ways with venue management company VenuWorks. Warren said a historical building like Hoyt Sherman didn’t fit some of the shows VenuWorks, which operates and regionally promotes venues in midsize Midwestern markets, such as Stephens Auditorium in Ames.
Leaving VenuWorks in 2016 allowed Hoyt Sherman staff to book more openly and with multiple major promotion companies, such as First Fleet Productions and Live Nation.
“We outgrew them,” Warren said. “It certainly served its purpose.”
Local music luminaries, such as KIOA morning show host Maxwell Schaeffer, have taken notice to the programming increase. Schaeffer said he’s never seen a bad show at Hoyt Sherman Place and recognizes the venue offers a space for national artists not big enough for Wells Fargo Arena to play Des Moines.
"I think what they’ve learned is that if you line up enough shows and have a regular offering, you may have a low attendance for one, but (then) you’re sold out for (the next) two,” Schaeffer said. “From a financial standpoint they … know in the long run they’re going to come out ahead and be able to offer quality.”
Entertainers aren’t the only ones traveling to see Hoyt Sherman Place; fans have journeyed from across the country to experience the venue, creating direct and substantial economic impact in Des Moines. According to a newly published report curated by the Convention and Visitors Bureau, events at Hoyt Sherman Place this year have created a $2.7 million economic bump in the city.
As a result of the newfound success, the Hoyt Sherman staff brought home this year the first-ever Standing Ovation Award from Bravo Greater Des Moines, a local organization aimed at aiding funding for major arts initiatives. Additionally, Fegley, employed at Hoyt Sherman since 2008, brought home DSM Creative of the Year at the YP of the Year awards. YP of the Year awards are hosted by Juice (owned by the Des Moines Register) and the Young Professionals Connection, which compiles the votes and determines the winners.
Part of Hoyt Sherman Place's leadership strategy is to keep shows affordable, even when bringing large acts into an intimate space.
This means some shows cost slightly more at Hoyt Sherman compared to venues in similar, smaller markets due to the venue’s smaller capacity, Warren said. The cheapest ticket to see George Clinton this summer, for example, costs $44.50 at Hoyt Sherman and $35 at McGrath Amphitheater in Cedar Rapids. With each show, Warren said, he and Fegley look to keep the top ticket price under $100.
“Our business model is not to make a killing on every show, but to be able to pay the bills,” Warren said.
One fan, Cal Whitehurst, 67, of Des Moines, said catching shows like Styx and Kansas at Hoyt Sherman is worth paying a higher price.
“It’s way more intimate than even the Grandstand at the fair,” Whitehurst said. “It creates a way better atmosphere. The intimacy is closest between you and the artist. It makes you feel like you’re part of it.”
In Lovett's Instagram post, he gushed about the staff and catering offered on his show day, offering high praise all around.
"Hoyt Sherman is one of the nicest, best-sounding ... venues (of that size) anywhere," he wrote.
With plans of continued growth, to potentially 100 shows a year, management at Hoyt Sherman Place plans to double-down on the concert business. Warren told the Register the organization is in the infant stages of raising $2.5 million for backstage renovations that would add a green room space, showers, public restroom expansion and venue storage.
Annual donations most frequently come in at $50, with about 20 corporations and individuals donating more than $1,200. Donating to Hoyt Sherman Place gets supporters on an exclusive pre-sale list to events and donors have more than doubled from fiscal year 2016 to '17, from 233 to 479.
Renovations would allow a higher level of accommodations for the touring musicians, potentially attracting higher-profile names to the venue. The additional space could allow the venue to host multiple events a night.
The renovations are scheduled to take place in late summer or fall 2018.
“We’ve grown bigger than the building can cover,” Warren said.
Upcoming Hoyt Sherman Place shows:
May 10: Barenaked Ladies
May 13: NANBF Natural Iowa Championships
May 19: An evening with Primus
May 20: AbracaDAZZLE! An evening of magic
June 5: Lenny: America IRL -- A night of live readings, poetry and music (featuring Lena Dunham)
June 18: Michael McDonald
June 20: Joe Jackson
June 23: John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous
July 6: Free Flicks: The Lego Batman Movie
July 7: Loretta Lynn
July 13: George Clinton and P-Funk
July 22: Melissa Etheridge
July 27: Mary Chapin Carpenter
Aug. 1: Chris Isaak
Aug. 26: Trailer Park Boys
Sept. 16: An evening with Ira Glass
Sept. 30: Emmylou Harris
Oct. 13: Wynonna & The Big Noise
Oct. 15: Red Green
Nov. 4: Tommy Emmanuel and David Grisman
Dec. 1: Brian Regan
More information can be found at hoytsherman.org.