A life in showbiz
California Musical Theatre executive producer Richard Lewis started early
Richard Lewis started working at the Music Circus when he was in elementary school. He’s still there.
Now, though, he is the executive producer of the California Musical Theatre, the largest nonprofit arts organization in California and Sacramento’s oldest professional performing-arts group, which presents musical entertainment at the Music Circus, the Sacramento Community Theater and the Cosmopolitan on K Street.
The Music Circus is proof that it’s possible for the public and private sectors to get together and do something right sometimes. And the Wells Fargo Pavilion, home of the Music Circus, is evidence. The venue opened in 2003, after the California Musical Theater got together with Wells Fargo and the county and city of Sacramento to build the facility to replace the circus tent that had been housing entertainment since 1951.
It is a technological marvel, with a stage that has parts that can be elevated and rotated—and parts that can be elevated and rotated at the same time. It brings top Broadway shows and quality Broadway performers to Sacramento, and presents them, Lewis says, in a facility that “is unlike anything else on this planet.”
The 2011 Wells Fargo season begins in July with The Producers, and the season concludes in late August. Currently, CMT is doing Broadway Series shows at the Community Center Theater, and Lewis and staff are conducting auditions of potential performers for the seven summertime shows.
Lewis was still in grade school when he was put to work in the Music Circus by his father, Russell Lewis, co-founder with Howard Young of the Music Circus.
“I sold souvenir books, in costume,” Lewis recalled.
When he sold books, it was for the Sacramento Light Opera Association, and the Music Circus was its only endeavor. Its name was eventually changed to California Musical Theatre, two additional venues were added, and it has become the area’s leading presenter of musical-theater entertainment.
A career in the theater was not what Lewis had in mind when he was a teenager, despite his summer work for his father. “I thought I’d like to be in the Navy,” he said, “but I discovered that ships and waves were not a good combination for me.”
Next, Lewis earned a degree in theater from UCLA. “And in 1973, I was an assistant state manager for the tent shows, loved doing it, got my union card, and that was the real beginning of my professional career.”
He spent three years in New York, failing to find the kind of theater job he wanted but acquiring a variety of experiences, from moving theater equipment from one place to another to helping adjust the lighting in clubs and theaters. Each summer he came back to work during the Music Circus season, eventually serving as production stage manager and lighting director.
He returned to Sacramento permanently in 1979, went to work in the Music Circus office in 1980 and became its full-time general manager in 1982. Now 58, he became executive producer in 2002.
Early on, he said, there was an emphasis on casting established stars in leading Music Circle roles, and such well-known names as Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, Jo Anne Worley and Ed Ames were brought up from Hollywood to perform.
“We were doing very well for quite a while,” he recalled, “but the business fell off in the early ’90s, and we had to figure out why.”
The why turned out to be that people simply didn’t like the shows, Lewis said. “That’s when we shifted away from casting stars. We queried our audiences and found that the big names weren’t that much of a draw, that our audiences just wanted us to cast good people.”
In 1992, everyone discovered that the Music Circus facility itself was aging. “It hadn’t originally been built to last as long as it lasted, and what kind of topped it off was the stagehands saying, ‘You’ve really got to do something about the lighting grid. It’s getting close to unsafe.’
Plus, people wanted more comfortable seating. And air conditioning. And more women’s toilets. “We heard a lot about women’s toilets,” Lewis said.
The new Wells Fargo Pavilion seats 2,200, and the audience is in a much more intimate setting than other theaters, Lewis says, because it is closer to the stage all the way around.
Still, managers always wanted a winter season, but heating the Music Circus tent for winter shows wasn’t feasible. So the organization began looking at the 2,300-seat Sacramento Community Theater on L Street, and in 1989, began showing touring Broadway shows there.
The Broadway Series began in September, and this current season is presenting six shows through June 19.
Diversification has value, he said, and the CMT managers, motivated in part by the city of Sacramento’s announced desire to revive the K Street Mall, began looking for a location there for a cabaret-style theater.
“There is nothing like that in the area,” Lewis said. “We found a location at 10th and K [streets] that seemed ideal, so we went to developer David Taylor and restaurant investor Randy Paragary and pitched the idea to them, and they responded.”
Lewis says that, when they started, K Street didn’t “come alive” as they’d hoped, so times were difficult. “We’re a nonprofit, so what we wanted was for the shows to at least break even. They’re starting to do that now because things are happening on K Street. There are new entertainment venues there, and we’re happy to have the company.”
The Cosmopolitan, with seating in theater seats and tables, can accommodate as many as 194 people, and presents shows year-round.
Since Lewis has been around performance artists literally all of his life, an obvious question was if he had any desire to be a performer or creative artist himself.
“None at all,” he said. “First of all, I can’t carry a tune, and I hate writing. My job is to find people who are talented and give them the resources to do their job.
“Show business is tough, and I’ve tried to discourage my three children from going into it. I’ve advised them to find careers that can pay them enough to get into the theater by buying a ticket.”