Spokane has become a hotspot for A-list talent
Perhaps it’s the economy or proximity to Seattle
Glen Campbell sold out his Northern Quest Casino performance March 3. Queen Latifah was scheduled to speak in Spokane on Thursday until a family emergency kept her away.
Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian presidential candidate held captive for six years, will speak at Gonzaga University on Wednesday.
On April 15, the Get Lit! Festival will bring in Ted Kooser, former poet laureate. And May 13, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner from South Africa, will be Gonzaga University’s commencement speaker.
Tutu in Spokane?
“Holy smoke,” said Mike Kobluk, Chad Mitchell Trio member and retired director of Spokane’s Opera House.
“There is a feeling now that you can ask some of the best-known people in the world to come to Spokane, and they won’t say ‘ What is Spokane?’ ”
A-listers can perform, lecture and read anywhere they please. Bigger cities usually please them, but some are now choosing to stop in the Inland Northwest. Several in-the-know folks recently discussed their theories why.
Tod Marshall, organizer of GU’s Visiting Writers series, entices literary stars to Spokane. This year, the series landed a superstar, Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, who spoke on campus Jan. 31.
The hard economic times slashed university literary series budgets throughout the country, reducing the demand for author visits, plus book publishers cut down on author tours.
“So the speakers have been easier to negotiate with,” Marshall said.
Kevin Twohig, executive director of Spokane Public Facilities District, said the recession worked to Spokane’s advantage.
“We did our best to convince every forum we could that it was the right time to play here, not the wrong time. Our business went way up. We had our best year ever in 2010 and second best in 2011.”
Spokane snags some A-listers because they stop in Spokane on their way somewhere bigger.
Marshall said, “Sometimes the agency will say, ‘We’re sending so-and-so to Seattle. Would you like to piggyback on that?’ I say sure, but it’s got to be cheap.”
Tutu said yes to Spokane because he and his wife spent time in 2010 with Sue Weitz, GU’s vice president for student life. Weitz was serving as an executive dean for the international Semester at Sea program when Tutu and his wife joined the floating college.
When Tutu traveled to Tacoma to speak last spring, Weitz hand-delivered a letter from GU president Thayne McCulloh asking Tutu to speak at graduation.
McCulloh told Tutu about student efforts in the 1980s that convinced GU leaders to divest in companies involved in South Africa’s apartheid regime. McCulloh included his email address and within a few months, Tutu emailed his answer: Yes.
“He said: ‘Initially I thought I should say no, because I have retired, but I read through some of the work of your students who have been engaged in social justice, and they inspire me. I will come,’ ” McCulloh said.
As Inland Northwest residents earn wider recognition, their contacts increase. Novelist Jess Walter is often featured at writing workshops with the country’s best-known authors. These relationships enable him to suggest good authors for Spokane and help organizers of Inland Northwest literary events connect with them.
Walter said, “I’m always saying, ‘What about this person?’ ’’
Good venues, good crowds
When Cher appeared at the old Coliseum in August 1990, it was hot and crowded. Twohig said Cher told the crowd: “I love you Spokane, but I ain’t coming back until you get a new building.”
The Inland Northwest’s building/remodeling spree of the past decade – the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, the Knitting Factory, the Convention Center expansion, the venues at the Coeur d’Alene and Northern Quest casinos – resulted in a buffet of venue options. Large, medium, small, indoor, outdoor.
Isamu Jordan, Spokane musician and arts critic, said big-name musicians seek out the Knitting Factory.
“After they’ve done a lot of the arena shows, they’ll go back to do the smaller clubs. They like them because they are more intimate,” Jordan said. “They can slap hands with the audience and they can get their sweat on you and yours on them.”
Northern Quest Casino opened its outdoor pavilion last summer and snagged Toby Keith and other well-known acts. Elizabeth Liemandt, the casino’s director of marketing, said: “Our outdoor pavilion (seats) over 4,000. A venue of that size opens up the entertainers you can bring in.”
Liemandt said the more venues, the greater the competition.
“We all kind of challenge each other to bring in a higher level of entertainment,” she said.
Inland Northwest audiences are known for supporting events, big and small. They might buy their tickets last-minute, but they show up.
“I think the No. 1 reason all of us in Spokane are able to bring in entertainers of this caliber is because the community supports it,” Liemandt said. “If they weren’t buying tickets, we wouldn’t be able to have the concerts.”
So, has Spokane really arrived in the big time? GU’s Marshall provides a reality check.
He said money still matters – a lot.
Neither GU’s Visiting Writers series, nor the popular “Get Lit!” series, could afford the fees commanded by literary headliners, such as novelist Jonathan Franzen.
And Spokane won’t get a piggyback ride on Madonna’s tour. She’s heading directly to Seattle in the fall.
Why does it matter if A-listers say yes to Spokane?
McCulloh said: “They open up a whole new vista and allow people to experience something they might never have experienced.”
Exposure to great talents, and bigger vistas, feeds the dreams of our young people.
Jordan, who wrote for The Spokesman-Review’s teen page in the early 1990s, has never forgotten his 16th birthday. He spent it interviewing Sir Mix-A-Lot, the hip-hop star who performed at the Coliseum in 1990.
“I had front row seats to his show and got invited to the after-party and after the party, I interviewed him,” Jordan remembered. “He was totally great. There was no element of the star quality. He was just a guy.”