“Do you see this?” asked Laurence A. Caso, pointing to a piano in the corner of the green room at The Klein Memorial Auditorium. “Leonard Bernstein played that piano when he performed here. Victor Borge played that piano. Duke Ellington played it, too.”
If anything, the celebrated Bridgeport performing arts venue has not been lacking in a stellar history. Since its opening in 1940, the 1,447-seat theater has hosted varied show business icons ranging from Paul Robeson to Alice Cooper to George Carlin to country music star Lyle Lovett, who is returning for his third engagement at The Klein on Aug. 9.
Caso, who became The Klein’s executive director in 2014 after an Emmy Award-winning career as a CBS producer and executive, is now preparing The Klein for its next chapter, with upgrades to expand its current offerings and a focus on young talent who could become the next generation of performing stars. In this Suite Talk edition, reporter Phil Hall discusses The Klein’s notable past and gets a sneak peek at what the future holds for this nonprofit center.
Where does The Klein Memorial Auditorium fit in Fairfield County’s cultural landscape?
“We’re a regional performing arts center, so we draw audiences from all over Fairfield County. And now we’re drawing from New Haven, Hartford and even Springfield, Massachusetts. We’ve really widened the circle, depending on the programming that we offer.
Jacob Klein (the lawyer who founded the venue) wanted it to be a community performing hub for the performing arts, offering affordable entertainment. I think that we live up to that.”
It may be a community hub, but it is certainly not your typical community theater with nearly 1,500 seats. How do you work to ensure sold-out houses?
“I don’t think the goal is to always have sold-out houses. The goal is to serve the community so that they have a place where they can be entertained. But, at the same time, maybe there is the need to provide something for education that can enrich the quality of life, which the arts plays a very important role.”
What is The Klein’s approach to programming?
“The Klein has primarily operated as a rental house, where promoters come in and rent. So, our revenue comes from the rental fee. We vet the promoters for their work history and make sure it is going to be somebody who is going to be responsible and will live up to the obligations of a professional job, and who will do the kind of marketing you need to do to get the word out that a particular event is happening.
When we self-present, which started pretty much after I came on board in 2014, we do three or four events a year as our presentation. I always look at it through the parameter of what audience we are serving and is that something we have done before. I always look for some kind of element that is an added bonus for the community.
Back in 2014, when we had the Vienna Boys Choir here, the mayor at the time, Bill Finch, issued a proclamation and presented it at intermission declaring it Vienna Boys Choir Day in Bridgeport. It was a framed certificate that is now hanging in the rehearsal hall in Vienna. So, in a way, we brought the two cities together, and that’s a little added dimension that makes it all the more special.”
How does The Klein view its competition from other venues, both in Bridgeport and across the region?
“I don’t see us in a competition or a bidding war for talent. I think it’s terrific we’re all out here doing this, just drawing audience to live performing arts. The more of that goes on, the healthier.”
This summer, The Klein hosted youth theater productions of “Miss Saigon” and “Mary Poppins.” What is the importance of youth theater at the theater?
“Over half of the events that take place in this theater are performances of people under the age of 25. I’m very proud of that. Youth needs a place to go, and we’re one of seven Broadway-sized stages left in Connecticut. So, the experience of being on this stage is incomparable to them, and it something they’re going to remember.
Since I’ve taken this job, I don’t think I’ve gone more than two weeks without someone that I meet telling me, ‘Oh, when I was in second grade I was on that stage.’ There is some connection here that’s a touchstone for them — it’s a marker in their life. That’s what we’re doing for these young people now. It’s something that they will look back on later in life and have an attachment to.
Also, we are about to enter the sixth year of Klein Theater Arts, a tuition-free afterschool arts education program for sixth through twelfth graders. In 2013, the board put together a strategic five-year plan and it was the first item on our wish list. Three days a week, students receive instruction in singing, dancing and acting taught by arts professionals in those fields. Two years ago, we created the Klein Dance Company for the students most passionate about dance, and they have two rehearsals a week. This summer, they have 10 bookings of public performances, where they’re out in the community dancing. That’s a big thing for them.
And 18 months ago, we created technical production course for students who want to learn stage lighting and audio and set construction. That’s for high-schoolers and taught by our union stagehands and a set designer. Through this program, we have five paid interns who work beside our stagehands on Klein events.”
I’ve noticed some construction around the theater. What upgrades are underway?
“In November 2016, the state’s bond commission awarded us $2.65 million for badly needed technical upgrades to help us diversify our programming and improve it. This includes a new state-of-the-art audio system, which we’ve not had — if we had a big rock ’n’ roll concert, our promoters are spending up to $7,500 per concert renting equipment that we’re now going to have. That means we’ll have more promoters and more concerts.
Thanks to the bond, we are installing new carpeting and an elevator, which we never had. Plus, we will have a new conference room and some new offices as we expand our staff. And we already put out a digital display on the marquee — we’ve had people tell us they heard about the event because they were driving by the Klein and heard about the event.
We’ll also have a digital video projection system, which we haven’t had — I turned down three or four film festivals in the last three years because we didn’t have the equipment for it. Now, we can run film series and film festivals. Two weeks ago, we kicked it off when the Diocese of Bridgeport had a screening of ‘The Sound of Music’ as a sing-along. It was really grand.”
Are you planning more cinematic offerings?
“We’re not going to be a first-run movie theater — that’s not our mission. But I think we’ll doing special screenings tied to a specific event.”
How many shows does The Klein feature per year?
“Actual shows? I would say about 150. When I joined the board of directors in 2010, we looked at the calendar and figured out that in 2010 this building was in use for only 65 days. In 2017, this building was in use 351 days, and about 150 of those were paid event performances.”
Why did you decide in 2014 to accept the job of executive director?
“My career was in network television. I’ve done that for many years, both as a network executive and producer. What has always driven me was the 1934 Telecommunications Act, which said broadcasters must serve in the public interest. I take that seriously, and the challenge to have The Klein serve that role in this region was really appealing to me.
It wasn’t a life plan — the board came to me and asked me about taking over as executive director. I have one outstanding commitment to public television for a documentary called ‘The Other Side of War,’ about the totally unknown humanitarian deeds that American servicemen and women performed during the Vietnam War and afterward. I’ve started it and will get done in the next 18 months or two years.”
What is The Klein’s revenue and staff numbers?
“For revenue, we’re around the half-million-dollar mark, and that’s contributed and earned income. We have three full time and two part time.”
What’s on tap for The Klein this fall?
“All of our resident companies — the Greater Bridgeport Symphony, New England Ballet Company, ConnectUs, Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras and Fairfield County Children’s Choir — are starting their new seasons, which is always exciting. We’ve got two comedians, Elizardi Castro and Vic DiBitetto, coming here: it’s Vic’s first show here and Elizardi’s fourth. On Nov. 3rd, we are restoring opera here: The Gateway Classical Musical Society out of Greenwich, with professional musicians and singers, are going to do a concert recital of ‘Aida.’ Opera hasn’t been performed in this building in about 20 years. And the night after that, we have ‘The Incredible Acrobats of China’ here.”
Considering your television background, have you considered taping some of the productions staged here?
“The answer is yes and I’m already exploring it.”