The recently announced restructuring of University of Arkansas at Fort Smith’s organization structure means bringing to an end the school’s 39 year tradition of the Season of Entertainment.
In response to a loss of sales tax revenue, the UAFS will realign its organizational structure beginning July 1, UAFS Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley announced April 12. Included in that significant restructure is discontinuing the Season of Entertainment along with other programs and practices.
Started in 1981, the Season of Entertainment brought top-billed entertainers and shows to Fort Smith and showcased the theater and musical talents of UAFS students. It also gave many students to train and perform with masters in the industry, said Stacey Jones, associate vice chancellor for campus and community events.
“The mission of that, quite frankly, always was to bring nationally touring programs to our community and at the same time, better opportunities to our students,” Jones said, noting that at times there were more students performing on the stage than audience members watching. “Over the years with the Season of Entertainment, there were times at jazz concerts I would 600 to 700 people or higher in the audience. That’s almost unheard of for college programs. … Those kids deserve that, and they got great audiences. That was my motivation.”
One highlight Jones remembered looking back at past seasons was when Dizzy Gillespie, American jazz trumpeter, composer and bandleader who was one of the seminal figures of the bebop movement, did a workshop for students and performed for the public with school’s jazz band.
“Some of the artists we brought in were phenomenal,” Jones said.
Lucie Arnaz, Lawrence Welk and “Doc” Severinsen, an American jazz trumpeter who led the band on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson were others fondly remembered by Jones.
“One of the bigger ones I guess was the Boston Pops (Orchestra). We brought them in for a Christmas show, which was unfeasible that we had them in Fort Smith, Arkansas. … They used to fly with their own jet because there were so many of them. We had to have five buses lined up to pick them up. … It was a phenomenal day, and I had fun with it,” Jones said.
Another big group brought in by the Season of Entertainment was the Blue Man Group. The first time they were part of the Season, there were three performances with a total of 3,000 audience members, Jones said.
Jones said other audience favorites were Audra McDonald, Steve Allen, Patti LuPone, Garrison Keillor, an American author, storyteller, humorist, voice actor and radio personality, best known as the creator of the Minnesota Public Radio show A Prairie Home Companion, which he hosted from 1974 to 2016,
“He was an interesting guy,” Jones said of Keller, also noting that LuPone performing with the university’s choir was “a great moment for those kids.” Jones said when Allen was on campus, he carried a recorder with him and was working the entire time he was in Fort Smith.
“The man was a genius,” he said.
The first time the Season brought in “Cats,” the musical, was before the Fort Smith Convention Center was renovated and still only had one loading dock.
“I remember when ‘Cats’ rolled in, it was with seven semis,” Jones said. “Thank goodness they came the day before. It took the entire day before to set up. It was kind of a fluke. They had a date cancelled, and we got them.”
One of the most important lessons Jones learned is that it’s not necessarily being able to book the big acts, but to find what big acts will sell in Fort Smith, he said, noting that shows that are somewhat family orientated do well.
“When the Boston Pops came, it was the first time this market had ever experienced a $100 ticket. Did I get some pushback on that? Yes, I did. But we couldn’t get anything less than that to get them here,” Jones said.
With the Season of Entertainment discontinued, the university’s music and theatre groups will primarily share space on campus and perform in campus facilities in the future, Riley said. Promotion will focus on getting people on campus for “some outstanding performances by students,” Jones said.
“Sometimes people think student performances are not something they want to go to see until they go see it, and then they come back,” Jones said.
The Season of Entertainment, along with other “arts” offerings in the region, contributed much to the Fort Smith metro over the years, Jones said.
“I had a businessman tell me, ‘This is great. When we were looking at places to move our business to, we always look at the labor, but we also look at education offerings. … And we look at the entertainment. That is a lot to solidify what brings businesses (to the region),” Jones said.
He added that arts will live on in Fort Smith without the season because of acts that the Fort Smith Convention Center is working to bring to the city, as well as the Fort Smith Little Theatre, the Fort Smith Symphony and other organizations bringing arts to the area.
“Performing arts and live arts are important to a community. They are important to the lifeblood of the community. You look around the country at cities that don’t have those, and I can tell you right now, they are missing a piece of the pie,” Jones said.